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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

43. Foreign Commerce

Commerce with other nations is not only necessary and beneficial to all parties, it is a right and a duty, and should consist of the free exchange of surpluses that nature has best fitted each to produce. In order to function properly, however, free trade must be established on a reciprocal basis.

"Our people have a decided taste for navigation and commerce. They take this from their mother country, and their servants are in duty bound to calculate all their measures on this datum: we wish to do it by throwing open all the doors of commerce and knocking off its shackles. But as this cannot be done for others unless they will do it for us, and there is no great probability that Europe will do this, I suppose we shall be obliged to adopt a system which may shackle them in our ports as they do us in theirs." --Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, 1785. ME 5:183, Papers 8:633

"At such a distance from Europe and with such an ocean between us, we hope to meddle little in its quarrels or combinations. Its peace and its commerce are what we shall court; and to cultivate these, we propose to place at the courts of Europe most interesting to us, diplomatic characters of economical grade, and shall be glad to receive like ones in exchange." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier Luis de Pinto, 1790. ME 8:74

"Our connection with Europe is less political than commercial." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1791. ME 8:198

43.1 A Balanced Commerce

"I trust the good sense of our country will see that its greatest prosperity depends on a due balance between agriculture, manufactures and commerce, and not in this protuberant navigation which has kept us in hot water from the commencement of our government, and [has also engaged] us in war." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, 1809.

"An equilibrium between the occupations of agriculture, manufactures and commerce shall simplify our foreign concerns to the exchange only of that surplus which we cannot consume for those articles of reasonable comfort or convenience which we cannot produce." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Pennsylvania Citizens, 1809. ME 16:356

"Nature... has conveniently assorted our wants and our superfluities, to each other. Each nation has exactly to spare, the articles which the other wants... The governments have nothing to do, but not to hinder their merchants from making the exchange." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Montmorin, 1787. ME 6:186

"The permitting an exchange of industries with other nations is a direct encouragement of your own, which without that, would bring you nothing for your comfort, and would of course cease to be produced." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1823. ME 15:433

"Our navigation involves still higher considerations. As a branch of industry, it is valuable, but as a resource of defence, essential." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:276

"A century's experience has shown, that we double our numbers every twenty or twenty-five years. No circumstance can be foreseen, at this moment, which will lessen our rate of multiplication for centuries to come. For every article of the productions and manufactures of [a foreign] country, then, which can be introduced into the habit [of ours], the demand will double every twenty or twenty-five years. And to introduce the habit, we have only to let the merchants alone." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Montmorin, 1787. ME 6:186

43.2 Protection of Commerce

"The persons and property of our citizens are entitled to the protection of our government in all places where they may lawfully go." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Granting Passports, 1793. ME 3:244

"That the persons of our citizens shall be safe in freely traversing the ocean, that the transportation of our own produce in our own vessels to the markets of our choice and the return to us of the articles we want for our own use shall be unmolested I hold to be fundamental, and that the gauntlet must be forever hurled at him who questions it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1815.

"Our true interest will be best promoted, by making all the just claims of our fellow citizens, wherever situated, our own, by urging and enforcing them with the weight of our whole influence, and by exercising in this, as in every other instance, a just government in their concerns, and making common cause even where our separate interest would seem opposed to theirs. No other conduct can attach us together; and on this attachment depends our happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1786. ME 5:384

"As soon as [our agricultural productions become too great for the demand, both internal and foreign], the surplus of hands must be turned to something else. I should then, perhaps, wish to turn them to the sea in preference to manufactures; because, comparing the characters of the two classes, I find the former the most valuable citizens... However, we are not free to decide this question on principles of theory only. Our people are decided in the opinion that it is necessary for us to take a share in the occupation of the ocean, and their established habits induce them to require that the sea be kept open to them, and that that line of policy be pursued which will render the use of that element to them as great as possible. I think it a duty in those entrusted with the administration of their affairs, to conform themselves to the decided choice of their constituents; and that therefore, we should in every instance preserve an equality of right to them in the transportation of commodities, in the right of fishing, and in the other uses of the sea." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:94, Papers 8:426

43.3 Navigation Limited to Our Own Commerce

"The inordinate extent given [to commerce] among us by our becoming the factors of the whole world has enabled it to control the agricultural and manufacturing interests. When a change of circumstances shall reduce it to an equilibrium with these, to the carrying our produce only, to be exchanged for our wants, it will return to a wholesome condition for the body politic, and that beyond which it should never more be encouraged to go." --Thomas Jefferson to Larkin Smith, 1809.

"This exuberant commerce... brings us into collision with other powers in every sea and will force us into every war of the European powers. The converting this great agricultural country into... a mere headquarters for carrying on the commerce of all nations with one another is too absurd... It is essentially interesting to us to have shipping and seamen enough to carry our surplus produce to market; but beyond that, I do not think we are bound to give it encouragement by drawbacks or premiums." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Stoddert, 1809.

"Our greediness for wealth and fantastical expense have degraded and will degrade the minds of our maritime citizens. These are the peculiar vices of commerce." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1818. ME 15:169

43.4 Problems Created by Navigation

"That the wars of the world have swollen our commerce beyond the wholesome limits of exchanging our own productions for our own wants and that, for the emolument of a small proportion of our society who prefer these demoralizing pursuits to labors useful to the whole, the peace of the whole is endangered... are evils more easily to be deplored than remedied." --Thomas Jefferson to Abbe Salimankis, 1810.

"Whether we shall engage in every war of Europe to protect the mere agency of our merchants and ship-owners in carrying on the commerce of other nations, even were those merchants and ship-owners to take the side of their country in the contest instead of that of the enemy, is a question of deep and serious consideration." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1815. ME 14:301

"Had we carried but our own produce and brought back but our own wants, no nation would have troubled us. Our commercial dashers, then, have already cost us so many thousand lives, so many millions of dollars, more than their persons and all their commerce were worth... Repealing the drawbacks... is one of three great measures necessary to insure us permanent prosperity. This preserves our peace." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:30

"I hope... that the policy of our country will settle down with as much navigation and commerce only as our own exchanges will require, and that the disadvantage will be seen of our undertaking to carry on that of other nations. This, indeed, may bring gain to a few individuals and enable them to call off from our farms more laborers to be converted into lackeys and grooms for them, but it will bring nothing to our country but wars, debt and dilapidation." --Thomas Jefferson to Josephus B. Stuart, 1817. ME 15:112

"The fraudulent usurpation of our flag [is] an abuse which brings so much embarrassment and loss on the genuine citizen, and so much danger to the nation of being involved in war, that no endeavor should be spared to detect and suppress it." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:339

"The alternatives between which we are to choose [are fairly stated]: 1, licentious commerce and gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many; or, 2, restricted commerce, peace and steady occupations for all. If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying 'let us separate.' I would rather the States should withdraw which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture. I know that every nation in Europe would join in sincere amity with the latter and hold the former at arm's length by jealousies, prohibitions, restrictions, vexations and war." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:29

43.5 A Nation's Right to Free Commerce

"The exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world [is] possessed by [a people] as of natural right, and [only through a] law of their own [can it be] taken away or abridged." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. (*) ME 1:189, Papers 1:123

"An exchange of surpluses and wants between neighbor nations is both a right and a duty under the moral law." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1791. ME 8:219

"It is impossible the world should continue long insensible to so evident a truth as that the right to have commerce and intercourse with our neighbors, is a natural right. To suppress this neighborly intercourse is an exercise of force, which we shall have a just right to remove [with a] superior force." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, 1790. ME 8:33

"Our interest [is] to throw open the doors of commerce and to knock off all its shackles, giving perfect freedom to all persons for the vent of whatever they may choose to bring into our ports, and asking the same in theirs." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XXII, 1782. ME 2:240

"The system of the United States is to use neither prohibitions nor premiums. Commerce there regulates itself freely and asks nothing better. Where a government finds itself under the necessity of undertaking that regulation, it would seem that it should conduct it as an intelligent merchant would; that is to say, invite customers to purchase by facilitating their means of payment, and by adapting goods to their taste. If this idea be just, government here [in France] has two operations to attend to with respect to the commerce of the United States: 1, to do away, or to moderate, as much as possible the prohibitions and monopolies of their materials for payment; 2, to encourage the institution of the principal manufactures, which the necessities or the habits of their new customers call for." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1788. ME 7:218

"I think all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1785. ME 5:48, Papers 8:332

43.6 Eliminating International Duties and Regulations

"Were the nations of Europe as free and unembarrassed of established systems as we are, I do verily believe they would concur with us in the... plan [that no duty shall be laid on either party on the productions of the other]." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1785. ME 5:18, Papers 8:231

"It [is] for our interest, as for that also of all the world, that every port of France, and of every other country, should be free." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1786. ME 5:346

"Instead of embarrassing commerce under piles of regulating laws, duties and prohibitions, could it be relieved from all its shackles in all parts of the world, could every country be employed in producing that which nature has best fitted it to produce, and each be free to exchange with others mutual surpluses for mutual wants, the greatest mass possible would then be produced of those things which contribute to human life and human happiness; the numbers of mankind would be increased and their condition bettered. Would even a single nation begin with the United States this system of free commerce, it would be advisable to begin it with that nation; since it is one by one only that it can be extended to all. Where the circumstances of either party render it expedient to levy a revenue by way of impost on commerce, its freedom might be modified in that particular by mutual and equivalent measures, preserving it entire in all others." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:275

"We are infinitely better off without treaties of commerce with any nation." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1815.

"We do not find the institution of consuls very necessary. Its history commences in times of barbarism, and might well have ended with them. During these, they were perhaps useful, and may still be so, in countries not yet emerged from that condition. But all civilized nations at this day, understand so well the advantages of commerce, that they provide protection and encouragement for merchant strangers and vessels coming among them. So extensive, too, have commercial connections now become, that every mercantile house has correspondents in almost every port. They address their vessels to these correspondents, who are found to take better care of their interests and to obtain more effectually the protection of the laws of the country for them, than the consul of their nation can." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Montmorin, 1788. ME 8:60

"Some nations, not yet ripe for free commerce in all its extent, might still be willing to mollify its restrictions and regulations for us, in proportion to the advantages which an intercourse with us might offer." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:275

"Should any nation, contrary to our wishes, suppose it may better find its advantage by continuing its system of prohibitions, duties and regulations, it behooves us to protect our citizens, their commerce and navigation, by counter prohibitions, duties and regulations also. Free commerce and navigation are not to be given in exchange for restrictions and vexations, nor are they likely to produce a relaxation of them... Principles... founded in reciprocity appear perfectly just and... offer no cause of complaint to any nation." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:276

"It rests with the legislature to decide whether they will meet inequalities abroad with countervailing inequalities at home, or provide for the evil in any other way." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Annual Message, 1802. ME 3:341

"It is true we must expect some inconvenience in practice from the establishment of discriminating duties. But in this as in so many other cases, we are left to choose between two evils. These inconveniences are nothing when weighed against the loss of wealth and loss of force which will follow our perseverance in the plan of indiscrimination. When once it shall be perceived that we are either in the system or in the habit of giving equal advantages to those who extinguish our commerce and navigation by duties and prohibitions, as to those who treat both with liberality and justice, liberality and justice will be converted by all into duties and prohibitions. It is not to the moderation and justice of others we are to trust for fair and equal access to market with our productions, or for our due share in the transportation of them, but to our own means of independence and the firm will to use them." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:281

"If the nations of Europe, from their actual establishments, are not at liberty to say to America that she shall trade in their ports duty free, they may say she may trade there paying no higher duties than the most favored nation; and this is valuable in many of these countries, where a very great difference is made between different nations. There is no difficulty in the execution of this contract, because there is not a merchant who does not know, or may not know, the duty paid by every nation on every article. This stipulation leaves each party at liberty to regulate their own commerce by general rules, while it secures the other from partial and oppressive discriminations." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1785. ME 5:19, Papers 8:232

"It was proposed that neither party should make the other pay, in their ports, greater duties than they paid in the ports of the other. One objection to this was its impracticability; another, that it would put it out of our power to lay such duties on alien importation as might encourage importation by natives. Some members, much attached to English policy, thought such a distinction should actually be established. Some thought the power to do it should be reserved in case any peculiar circumstances should call for it, though under the present, or perhaps, any probable circumstances, they did not think it would be good policy ever to exercise it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1785. ME 5:47, Papers 8:332

43.7 Agriculture vs. Domestic Manufactures

"In Europe, the best distribution of labor [was] supposed to be that which places the manufacturing hands alongside the agricultural; so that the one part shall feed both and the other part furnish both with clothes and other comforts. Would that be best here? Egoism and first appearances say yes. Or would it be better that all our laborers should be employed in agriculture? In this case a double or treble portion of fertile lands would be brought into culture; a double or treble creation of food be produced, and its surplus go to nourish the now perishing births of Europe, who in return would manufacture and send us in exchange our clothes and other comforts." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baptiste Say, 1804.

"In general, it is a truth that if every nation will employ itself in what it is fittest to produce, a greater quantity will be raised of the things contributing to human happiness than if every nation attempts to raise everything it wants within itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Lasteyrie, 1808.

"[Montesquieu wrote in his Spirit of the Laws, XX, c.23:] 'It is difficult for a country to avoid having superfluities; but it is the nature of commerce to render the superfluous useful, and the useful necessary. The state will be, therefore, able to afford necessaries to a much greater number of subjects.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

43.8 Encouraging Home Manufacturing

"My idea is that we should encourage home manufactures to the extent of our own consumption of everything of which we raise the raw materials." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1809.

"The government of the United States at a very early period, when establishing its tariff on foreign importations, were very much guided in their selection of objects by a desire to encourage manufactures within themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to -----, 1821. ME 15:337

"Shall we suppress the impost and give that advantage to foreign over domestic manufactures?" --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:423

"It is our business to manufacture for ourselves whatever we can, to keep our markets open for what we can spare or want; and the less we have to do with the amities or enmities of Europe, the better." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, 1815. ME 14:308

"As long as we can build cheaper than other nations, we shall be employed in preference to others." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Granting Passports, 1793. ME 3:246

"I do not mean to say that it may not be for the general interest to foster for awhile certain infant manufactures until they are strong enough to stand against foreign rivals; but when evident that they will never be so, it is against right to make the other branches of industry support them." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1823. ME 15:432

43.9 The Manufacture of Arms

"To make [arms] within ourselves... as well as the other implements of war, is as necessary as to make our bread within ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Harrison, 1779. Papers 3:126

"The establishing a manufacture of arms... would make us independent for an article essential to our preservation." --Thomas Jefferson to Patrick Henry, 1785.

"Our citizens have been always free to make, vend and export arms. It is the constant occupation and livelihood of some of them. To suppress their calling, the only means perhaps of their subsistence, because a war exists in foreign and distant countries in which we have no concern would scarcely be expected. It would be hard in principle and impossible in practice. The law of nations, therefore, respecting the rights of those at peace, does not require from them such an internal derangement in their occupations. It is satisfied with the external penalty... of confiscation of such portion of these arms as shall fall into the hands of any of the belligerent powers on their way to the ports of their enemies. To this penalty our citizens are warned that they will be abandoned; and that even private contraventions may work no inequality between the parties at war, the benefits of them will be left equally free and open to all." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1793.

43.10 Preferring American-Made Products

"Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort; and if... [we will purchase] nothing foreign where an equivalent of domestic fabric can be obtained without regard to a difference of price, it will not be our fault if we do not soon have a supply at home equal to our demand, and wrest that weapon of distress from the hand which has wielded it." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. ME 14:392

"The prohibiting duties we lay on all articles of foreign manufacture which prudence requires us to establish at home, with the patriotic determination of every good citizen to use no foreign article which can be made within ourselves without regard to difference of price, secures us against a relapse into foreign dependency." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baptiste Say, 1815.

"I have come to a resolution myself as I hope every good citizen will, never again to purchase any article of foreign manufacture which can be had of American make, be the difference of price what it may." --Thomas Jefferson to B. S. Barton, 1815. ME 19:223

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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