Title Thomas Jefferson
Number 53454
Size 4to
Date August 26, 1808
Place [Monticello]
Category Presidential
Price $39,000.00
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Jefferson defends the most controversial Act of his Presidency: The Embargo: "To have submitted our rightful commerce to...tributary exactions...would have been to surrender our independence"
Responding to the residents of Newbury Port "in legal town meeting assembled," the President offers a carefully crafted, very detailed justification of his Embargo. In a 3-page LS Jefferson details his beliefs and reasons for the controversial embargo. He acknowledges "the inconvenience brought on our country in general by the circumstances of the times in which we happen to live, times to which the history of nations presents no parallel," and reminds them that "For years we have been looking as spectators on our brethren of Europe, afflicted by all those ills which necessarily follow an abandonment of the moral rules which bind men and nations together. Connected with them in friendship and commerce we have happily so far kept aloof from their calamitous conflicts by a steady observance of justice towards all."

Jefferson conceived the Embargo Act,signed into law in December 1807, as the only viable alternative to a costly war on the high seas with the European belligerents during the Napoleonic Wars. It was his intention, by denying those nations the fruits of the sizeable American trade, to compel them to respect neutral American trading vessels. But in the end, its impact was considerably more damaging to the American merchants, seamen and all connected with the maritime trade. In time it reciprocally devastated many segments of the economy. The Embargo's constraints were particularly felt in New England, and from its inception, Jefferson was the recipient of respectful entreaties, petitions and remonstrances from citizens, civic groups and municipalities.

In spite of American neutrality, though, "...all regard to the rights of others having been thrown aside, the belligerent powers have beset the highway of commercial intercourse with edicts which... expose our commerce and marine, under almost every destination, a prey to their fleets and armies. Each party indeed would admit our commerce with themselves, with the view of associating us in their war against the other, but we have wished for war with neither. Under these circumstances were passed the laws of which you complain, by those delegated to exercise the powers of legislation for you [Congress], with every sympathy of a common interest in exercising them faithfully...."

In fact, he contends, "To have submitted our rightful commerce to prohibitions and tributary exactions from others would have been to surrender our independence. To resist them by arms was war..." Jefferson promises his petitioners that repeal of the Embargo may take place whenever the European wars end, or when the belligerants alter their stated policies. Then, when American commerce is deemed "sufficiently safe in the judgment of the President; he is authorized to suspend the embargo. But no peace or suspension of hostilities, no change of measures affecting neutral commerce is known to have taken place. The Orders [in Council] of England, and the Decrees of France and Spain, existing at the date of these laws, are still unrepealed, as far as we know...." He goes on to explain why a special session of Congress cannot be called, on short notice, to consider the Embargo's repeal, and adds that he "should with great willingness have executed the wishes of the Inhabitants of Newbury Port had peace or a repeal of the obnoxious edicts" taken place, "but while these edicts remain the legislature alone can proscribe the course to be pursued."

In the final months of his Presidency, Jefferson was the recipient of similar petitions from town meetings in Boston, North Yarmouth and Providence. In the next month or so, he received so many additional petitions that it became obvious that an organized campaign was being orchestrated. Jefferson complained that "he was overwhelmed with petitions from Massachusetts," and that these "called for more writing than he could get done at Monticello." He took the drastic step of having 150 copies of a printed response prepared. "The tide of paper rose rapidly in September, reaching its crest on October 3, when he received 50 protests and 11 counter addresses" (D. Malone, Jefferson the President: Second Term, p. 609). It was later learned that the petition campaign against the Embargo had been launched by Federalists in Boston. In the final months of his Presidency, Jefferson partially lifted the Embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, only prohibiting trade with Britain and France.

The exact same letter, albeit to the inhabitants of Yarmouth, was offered in Christie's Forbes Sale and sold for $60,000 (the low of the estimate, $60,000 - $80,000). Our present example is more important because of Newbury Port's significant role in the Revolutionary War, as well as the fact that this letter is 3 pages, as opposed to 2. Our letter is written at an earlier date, and the condition could not be better. It should be noted that we feel that our letter is written in the exact same hand as that of the Forbes Sale example, which is erroneously described in their catalog as being an autograph letter signed. The handwriting is strikingly similar to Jefferson's, nonetheless.
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