The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson

By Subject


I am of opinion that twenty-three thousand hogsheads of tobacco, the annual consumption of' this country, do not exceed the amount of those commodities which it is more advantageous to us to buy here than in England, or elsewhere; and such a commerce would powerfully reinforce the motives for a friendship from this country towards ours. This friendship we ought to cultivate closely, considering the present dispositions of England towards us.

I am lately returned from a visit to that country. The spirit of hostility to us has always existed in the mind of the King, but it has now extended itself through the whole mass of the people, and the majority in the public councils. in a country, where the voice of the people influence so much the measures of administration, and where it coincides with the private temper of the King, there is no pronouncing on future events. It is true they have nothing to gain, and much to lose by a war with us. But interest is not the strongest passion in the human breast. There are difficult points, too, still unsettled between us. They have not withdrawn their armies out of our country, nor given satisfaction for the property they brought off. On our part, we have not paid our debts, and it will take time to pay them. In conferences with some distinguished mercantile characters, I found them sensible of the impossibility of our paying these debts at once, and that an endeavor to force universal and immediate payment, would render debts desperate, which are good in themselves. I think we should not have differed in the term necessary. We differed essentially in the article of interest. For while the principal, and interest preceding and subsequent to the war seem justly due from us, that which accrued during the war does not. Interest is a compensation for the use of money. Their money, in our hands, was in the form of lands and negroes. Tobacco, the produce of these lands and negroes (or as I may call it, the interest of them), being almost impossible of conveyance to the markets of consumption, because taken by themselves in its way there, sold during the war, at five or six shillings the hundred. This did not pay taxes, and for tools and other plantation charges. A man who should have attempted to remit to his creditor tobacco, for either principal or interest, must have remitted it three times before one cargo would have arrived safe; and this from the depredations of their own nation, and often of the creditor himself; for some of the merchants entered deeply into the privateering business. The individuals, who did not, say they have lost this interest; the debtor replies, that he has not gained it, and that it is a case, where a Toss having been incurred, every one tries to shift it from himself. The known bias of the human mind from motives of interest should lessen the confidence of each party in the justice of their reasoning; but it is difficult to say, which of them should make the sacrifice, both of reason and interest. Our conferences were intended as preparatory to some arrangement. It is uncertain how far we should have been able to accommodate our opinions. But the absolute aversion of the government to enter into any arrangement prevented the object from being pursued. Each country is left to do justice to itself and to the other, according to its own ideas, as to what is past; and to scramble for the future, as well as they can; to regulate their commerce by duties and prohibitions, and perhaps by cannons and mortars; in which event, we must abandon the ocean, where we are weak, leaving to neutral nations the carriage of our commodities; and measure with them on land, where they alone can lose. Farewell, then, all our useful improvements of canals and roads, reformations of laws, and other rational employments.

to James Ross, 8 May 1786