Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

A Threat of War

For eight years Jefferson filled the presidential chair. When the end of his first term came he was re-elected by a sweeping majority.

He was sitting, one day, in his office, a pile of papers strewn before him on the desk, his long chin in his hand.

"If we can keep the peace a few years longer," he murmured, anxiously, "only a few years, we can pay our national debt, and our income will then be large enough for any war that comes upon us."

He frowned and looked towards the window.

"This war in Europe will ruin our trade. Between the Orders in Council of the English and the decrees of Bonaparte, each side bound to seize all ships bound for the other's ports, our own vessels have little chance, now-a-days, of going anywhere without being taken and plundered. We'll be drawn into this war, unless something can be done to hold it off for awhile."

He drummed with his knuckles on the arm of his chair.

"But these English claims are too much to be borne," he went on frowningly. "The idea that a man born an Englishman cannot become a naturalized American citizen is absurd! Their treatment of American ships—seizing sailors from our vessels to place in their own navy, on the pretense that they are taking back English deserters, is getting beyond all patience. It's a situation that—"

A secretary entered at this moment, breaking in upon the President's thoughts.

"Well?" asked the latter, leaning back inquiringly.

"Sir," said the young man, whose face was flushed with excitement, "the news has just come that the English ship Leopard  has fired several broadsides on the Chesapeake—"

The President rose quickly to his feet.

"Broadsides, you say?" he asked quickly. "What did the Chesapeake  do?"

"Hauled down her flag, sir. She wasn't expecting to fight; wasn't ready—"

"Did the Englishmen board her?"

"Yes, sir. They went aboard and took four men, claiming they'd deserted from the English navy. They say, sir, that three of them are born Americans—"

President Jefferson took two or three strides up and down the office.

"Were any killed?" he asked, suddenly facing about.

The young man nodded soberly.

"Three, sir, and eighteen wounded. The account is being sent you at once. I heard it and hurried in to let you know."

"Thank you. Bring in the paper as soon as it comes."

The secretary hurried from the room, leaving the President pacing the floor, his usually calm, cheerful face full of sudden care.

"I have only to open my hand now," he muttered, "to let havoc loose!"

It was true. The whole country was ready to plunge into war with Great Britain. "Free trade and sailors' rights!" was the rallying cry of the people. The utmost excitement ruled the day and the wildest threats were uttered against England.

But Thomas Jefferson knew that America was not prepared for a second war with England and that to enter upon one at this time would lead only to defeat. He was not, however, going to submit any longer to such outrages without showing what America thought of these high-handed acts.

Without delay he sent the frigate Revenge  to England to demand an explanation and the return of the men who had been taken from her decks, as well as the punishment of Admiral Berkeley, the commanding officer of the British squadron. He issued a proclamation ordering all armed British ships to leave the waters of the United States, and declaring that no such ships would be allowed to come within those waters unless carrying dispatches, or in distress.

"Every one of our own vessels must be prepared for instant service. Gunboats must be sent to all points that might be attacked. Our fleet must be called home from the Mediterranean. At least two thousand soldiers must be placed along the coast," were his terse directions.

Besides these things, he ordered the governors of the states to have one hundred thousand militia ready to be called to the colors.

"You," he said to Decatur, the commander of our vessels at Norfolk, "you will attack the British fleet if it should attempt to pass into the inner harbor."

His secretary was busy sending letters to various members of Congress, bearing the warning to be ready to come to Washington at a moment's notice. When the frigate sent to England should come back, the country would know whether war was to come at once or not. It hardly seemed possible that it could be postponed much longer, with the temper of the people at such a fever heat.

Thomas Jefferson naturally felt the anger that filled the minds of all patriotic Americans, but with him lay the awful responsibility of plunging his country into a war for which he knew it was not ready, or, perhaps, of saving it from one; at least of putting one off until the chances of winning should be better.

When the frigate came back with a message of regret from England, though very little else was done by its government to make up for the outrage to the Chesapeake, Jefferson resolved to try one thing more to see whether or not the difference between the two countries might be settled without actual war.

"If we keep our ships at home," he thought, "neither England nor France can seize them. That is clear. But, besides this, both those countries will be suffering for the goods they get from America. If we lay an embargo in this way on our foreign trade, they'll be glad to come to terms and respect our commerce for the sake of having the embargo lifted again."

The idea was not a new one, but it was to be applied in a more sweeping manner than ever before.

"It will," wrote Jefferson, "introduce between nations another umpire than arms."

December, 1807, brought about the passage of this embargo. The Senate took but four hours to agree with Jefferson. John Quincy Adams, leaving the federalists to vote with the republican-democrats, stated the views of most Americans.

"The President has recommended this measure on his high responsibility," he said with stern earnestness. "I would not consider, I would not deliberate; I would act."

And act they did. Both Senate and douse passed the embargo that said to the bullying nations across the Atlantic: "We'll show you that the need of American goods will bring you to reason!"

At first everybody was delighted with the new and bloodless way of making war. But, after awhile, it began to be seen that the manufacturing and ship-building sections of the country were being injured quite as much as the English or the French, and perhaps even more. New England was anxious to be rid of the restraint, and there were again stormy meetings in the little states along the north-east coast, and even violent talk that pointed toward rebellion. Still, the main body of the people held to the embargo, anxious to try it out to its full extent.

At length, Jefferson, whose second term of office was drawing to an end, and who felt that he ought not to leave an affair that was causing such a tempest for the next president to handle, signed an act that raised the embargo but forbade trade with either Great Britain or France. This gave the ships that had been tied up to the wharves for two years a chance to sail once more on deep waters, carrying the goods of America and braving the threats of the unfriendly powers.

This was one of the last acts of Jefferson's eight years of the presidency. Like Washington, he refused to stand for a third term of office, hoping that his lifelong friend, James Madison, would be chosen to fill his place.