To Thomas Jefferson January 30, 1806
Frome the original letter at the Library of Congress.
I have not seen nor heard anything respecting the subject I wrote to you upon and also to the vice-president after his arrival at Washington. His letter, however, is on a different subject, and which I introduce without meaning that the one should interfere with the other.
The affairs of Europe are now reaching a crisis that merits and demands the attention of the United States. If ever a law of Nations shall be established and the freedom and safety of the seas secured it must be in a Crisis like the present. In the course of this letter I intend to make you an offer on this subject, but I will first detail, as concisely as I can, my opinion of the present state of things and their probable event.
Bonaparte has done what required no gift of prophecy to foresee; that is, that he would attack the Austrians before the Russians arrived; and secondly, that if he defeated the Austrians the Russians would not fight.
At the time of beginning this letter we have news from Paris to the 20th Novr and from Bordeaux to the 26. Bonaparte was then on the point of entering Vienna. This I think will terminate the War on the Continent. The question in this case will be, What will Bonaparte do with respect to England? Will he make a general peace by a congress for the purpose that shall include England, or will he make a continental peace and leave England out?
My opinion is that he will do the latter and I hope he will. This is what he did in the last treaty of peace with Austria and what is best for him to do now. The matters he has to settle with England, in whatever way it may be done, whether by a descent or by harassing the english Government out by continual alarms and expence, are of a nature different to the affairs of the Continent and ought not to be blended with them. The one regards the Sea; the other the land. But I think England will try to make it a congressional affair and that Harronby is gone to the Continent to lie by for that purpose. It is the last use the english Government can make of the Coalition it has been at the expence of raising.
But the case with Bonaparte will be, that if he defeats the present Coalition which I have every moral certainty that he will, and dictate a peace to Austria, for he cares nothing about Russia, he will have it more in his power to act against England than he had before. Pitt is a poor short sighted politician — a man of expedients instead of system. It is easy to see that this Coalition was formed to ward off from England the meditated invasion, but then Pitt ought to have taken into the calculation what the event and consequences would be if it failed. It was a measure of great and certain expence with uncertain and shadowy prospects of advantage, and very perilous consequences if it miscarried. A General is a fool and a politician is the same, who fights a battle he might avoid, and where the disasters if he is beaten far outweighs the advantages if he succeeds. This inclines me sometimes to think that the plan, in forming this coalition, was not actual war, but that it was to hang on the rear of Bonaparte and to harass, alarm and frighten him into a peace that England should dictate. If this was the scheme Mack was a fit instrument of intrigue for the purpose, but if it was actual war he was the poorest creature they could chuse; and in either case, it shews that Pitt was not a Judge of the Character and Constitution of his enemy, for Bonaparte is not a man to be frightened or cajoled or deterred from the pursuance of his object by apprehension of danger and difficulties. I think he will be at Boulogne again in the Spring and put the english Government in a terrible fright. He will then have no enemy hanging on his rear.
I am not certain if you know that the plan for a descent upon England by gunboats was proposed by myself. I wrote the whole plan at Mr. Skipwith’s house in the Country and shewed it first to Mr. Monroe. Lathenas a friend of ours and member of the convention translated it into french and I sent it with the original in english to the directory who immediately set about building the boats. They then appointed Bonaparte commander in chief of the Army of England (l’armie d’angleterre) and by an agreement between him and me at his own house I was to accompany him. I know his opinion upon that expedition. He puts the whole upon landing. His expression to me was, “only let us land.” If he makes the descent I think he will give the command of it to his brother-in-law Murat and that he is training him up for the purpose. Nelson’s victory, as the english papers call it, will have no influence on the campaign nor on the descent. It never was intended to employ ships of the line on that expedition.
I have already spoken my opinion of what Bonaparte will do with respect to peace, that is, he will make a continental peace and leave England out, I have some lights to go by in forming this opinion.
As Bonaparte paid me the compliment of supposing that I knew more about England and the plans and politics of its government than people in france generally did, he sent a person to me when the last treaty of peace with Austria was to begin, with the following question, Whether in negotiating a treaty of peace with Austria it will be policy in france to enter into a treaty of peace with England? I gave him my answer fully and explicitly in the negative with the reasons upon which that decision was founded and I sent you a copy of that answer with several other papers, by the return of the vessel that brought Mr. Elsworth to france. I suppose Bonaparte had a mind to hear how I would answer the question, but had formed his own conclusion before he sent it. Be this however as it may I gave him several reasons which could not occur to him from the want of the local knowledge of England I possessed myself.
After the treaty of Peace with Austria was concluded, and the war with England still continuing I wrote and published my plan of an Unarmed Neutrality for the protection of Commerce. I had thrown out some general outlines of this plan in a publication of mine on the events of 18 Brumaire 1796 but in that which I published in 1801, of which I sent you a manuscript copy in English I reduced it to a regular System. My letters to you which accompanied the plan showed the progress it was making, which the assassination of Paul of Russia put a stop to. I had sent him two copies in french by the hands of a person who was going to Petersburgh and who desired to be the bearer of them.
Bonaparte has declared in several of his proclamations that his object, so far as respects foreign commerce, is the freedom and safety of the Seas, and as it is an object that suits with the greatness of his ambition, and with the temper of his genius which is cast for great exploits, and also with the interest of france, I believe him. This also is an object that merits the attention of the United States; but before I speak more particularly to this point I will state the situations Bonaparte will soon be in and out of which his future politics will grow.
In the first place; infering what he will do, from what he has done, he will make a continental peace and undertake England afterwards. In this case he will either dictate a peace on his own terms, or make a descent, and the conduct itself of the english Government demonstrates that it looks on a descent as a practicable thing.
If he make a descent and succeed he will hold the power of both Nations, by Sea and land in his own hands, and very probably will annihilate the present Government of England and form a new one, and put one of his brothers or his brother in law, Murat, at the head of it. This will put an end to naval wars, and consequently to the pretence of capturing Vessels of Commerce, and so far the world will be the better for it. The dynasty of the Guelphs have continued ninety two years which is somewhat longer than the Dynasty of the Stuarts continued.
If instead of a descent he makes a treaty of peace the question is, how is the freedom of the Seas to be made secure? The short answer is, that inability to do mischief is the best security against mischief.
In the second part of Rights of Man I spoke of france and England coming to an agreement to reduce the Navies of both Nations and to oblige all other Nations to do the same, and in the appendix to my letter to the Abbe Raynal 1782 (I have not the work by me) I have spoken of the folly of increasing Navies.
Every victory at Sea is a victory of loss. The Nation who loses the ships in an Action is eased of the expence of supporting them, and the Nation who takes them is additionly burthened with it. I observed that the annual Naval expences of England in her last war increased as her naval conquests increased. The last naval estimate for that year that I saw was upwards of fourteen millions sterling, which is equal to the amount of all the land-tax in England for seven years. The annual land-tax in England is two millions sterling stationary. Every county pays its annual quota of that sum.
This proposal for a mutual reduction of Navies was popular in England because I applied it as one of the principal means for reducing taxes. There ought to be no such Vessels as Ships of the line, and the number of frigates should be limited. It is because one Nation has ships of the line that another Nation has them; whereas if neither had them the balance would be even and the world’s high way, the Ocean, be less interrupted. This would be the best naval victory that Bonaparte could make and the world would be the better for it.
In the treaty of Peace between france and England in 1783 one of the Articles was that only six ships of the line should be kept in Commission by either Nation and Commissioners were appointed by each party to see the Article carried into execution. Why not go the whole length and say there shall be no ships of the line in existence, and that the number of frigates shall be limited. If a measure of this kind could be carried a law of nations could the more easily be established because the means of violating that law would be very much lessened. The rights of the seas ought to be under the guarantee of all Nations.
You will know by the month of April or May what the state of things are between france and England, for in the event either of a treaty of Peace if it includes the freedom of the Seas and the abolition of all assumed sovereignty over them or of a successful descent upon England, the United States cannot consistently remain a silent inactive spectator. They must do something to meet the new order of circumstances and to give them some claim to be heard on the subject of rights. I was pleased at the bill brought in by Mr. Wright respecting the impressments.
Congress have now before them a Memorial from the Merchants of New York. It seems to me to have been extorted from them by their losses rather than by their patriotism. However, as far as it goes it affords ground for Congress to act upon. There is nothing will make an impression on the government of England but a suspension of Commerce with that Country; a non-importation; and I am persuaded Congress would do right to pass an Act for this purpose empowering the executive to put it in execution when he shall judge proper, and to send information of it to the American Minister at London to be communicated to the english Government. It ought also to be sent to the American Minister at Paris. Bonaparte will then see we are taking measures that are in concert with his declarations, and it is always good policy to stand well with the conquerer if it can be done on a good principle.
If he makes a descent and succeed (and it is as probable he will be in London in six months as it was six months ago that he would be in Vienna, and that his brother George will have to run for it as his brother Francis has done) he will have it in his power to make his own law of nations, in doing which he ought to remember, I hope, at least he will not forget, that he owes the project of a descent to an American Citizen.
I have now given you a summary of some of the principal matters that have come to my knowledge while in france, and in which I have been an actor, and I have also stated to you my opinion of the consequences that will follow. I think you will find it proper, perhaps necessary, to send a person to france in the event either of a treaty of peace or of a descent, and I make you an offer of my services on that occasion to join Mr. Monroe. I do this because I do not think there is a person in the United States that can render so much service on the business that will come on as myself; and as I have had a considerable, I might say, a principle, share in bringing forward the great matters that now occupy the Theatre of Politics it will be agreeable to me to have some share in the conclusion of them; for though we cannot now make Countries free, it will be a great point gained to make the Seas free.
We have no news yet (Janry 27) of the entry of Bonaparte into Vienna. The latest news is that by the highland Mary of Norfolk. I think that when he enters Vienna he will make a handsome proclamation to the people of that City, and as it will be republished and read by the people of England he may make it serve the purpose of a proclamation to them. I expect he will curtail the Austrian Emperor’s dominions and disable him from breaking any more treaties, and then he will considerably enlarge his kingdom of Italy out of the territories he relinquished to Austria at the last peace.
If Bonaparte succeed in a descent (and all things are now possible) he will put an end to the english east-india company. In that case will he throw the trade open or will he make a monopoly of it for france and his new government of England? I think he will let Holland in for a share, but will he let the United States in is a matter worth thinking about, and also the west india trade. If reports of him are true he will not make peace with England without shutting her and Russia out of the Mediterranean. In the new order of things which the present war has provoked into existence many new circumstances will arise which by being foreseen may be guarded against or turned to advantage. - As I think that letters from a friend and to a friend have some claim to an answer it will be agreeable to me to receive an answer to this, but without any wish that you should commit yourself, neither can you be a judge of what is proper or necessary to be done till about the month of april or may. In the meantime you have my offer - please to present my respects to Governor Clinton.
Yours in friendship
New Rochelle N.Y. Janry 30 ’06
President of the United States