In May 1788, Thomas Jefferson wrote one of the most prescient statements of his career:
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
From Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788
To Edward Carrington
Paris May 27. 1788.
I have received with great pleasure your friendly letter of Apr. 24. It has come to hand after I had written my letters for the present conveiance, and just in time to add this to them. I learn with great pleasure the progress of the new Constitution. Indeed I have presumed it would gain on the public mind, as I confess it has on my own. At first, tho I saw that the great mass and groundwork was good, I disliked many appendages. Reflection and discussion have cleared off most of these. You have satisfied me as to the query I had put to you about the right of direct taxation. [My first wish was that 9 states would adopt it in order to ensure what was good in it, and that the others might, by holding off, produce the necessary amendments. But the plan of Massachusets is1 far preferable, and will I hope be followed by those who are yet to decide. There are two amendments only which I am anxious for. 1. A bill of rights, which it is so much the interest of all to have, that I conceive it must be yielded. The 1st. amendment proposed by Massachusets will in some degree answer this end, but not so well. It will do too much in some instances and too little in others. It will cripple the federal government in some cases where it ought to be free, and not restrain it in some others where restraint would be right. The 2d. amendment which appears to me essential is the restoring the principle of necessary rotation, particularly to the Senate and Presidency: but most of all to the last. Re-eligibility makes him an officer for life, and the disasters inseparable from an elective monarchy, render it preferable, if we cannot tread back that step, that we should go forward and take refuge in an hereditary one. Of the correction of this article however I entertain no present hope, because I find it has scarcely excited an objection in America. And if it does not take place ere long,2 it assuredly never will. The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, and government to gain ground. As yet our spirits are free. Our jealousy is only put to sleep by the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person to whom we all look as our president. After him inferior characters may perhaps3 succeed and awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into. For the present however, the general adoption is to be prayed for, and I wait with great anxiety for the news from Maryland and S. Carolina which have decided before this, and wish that Virginia, now in session, may give the 9th. vote of approbation. There could then be no doubt of N. Carolina, N. York, and New Hampshire.]4 But what do you propose to do with Rhode island? As long as there is hope, we should give her time. I cannot conceive but that she will come to rights in the long run. Force, in whatever form, would be a dangerous precedent.
There are rumours that the Austrian army is obliged to retire a little; that the Spanish squadron is gone to South America; that the English have excited a rebellion there, and some others equally unauthenticated. I do not mention them in my letter to Mr. Jay, because they are unauthenticated. The bankruptcies in London have recommenced with new force. There is no saying where this fire will end. Perhaps in the general conflagration of all their paper. If not now, it must ere long. With only 20 millions of coin, and three or four hundred million of circulating paper, public and private, nothing is necessary but a general panic, produced either by failures, invasion or any other cause, and the whole visionary fabric vanishes into air and shews that paper is poverty, that it is only the ghost of money, and not money itself. 100 years ago they had 20 odd millions of coin. Since that they have brought in from Holland by borrowing 40. millions more. Yet they have but 20 millions left, and they talk of being rich and of having the balance of trade in their favour.—Paul Jones is invited into the Empress’s service with the rank of rear admiral, and to have a separate command. I wish it corresponded with the views of Congress to give him that rank from the taking of the Serapis. [I look to] this officer as our great future dependance on the sea, where alone we should think of ever having a force. He is young enough to see the day when we shall be more populous than the whole British dominions and able to fight them ship to ship. We should procure him then every possible opportunity of acquiring experience. I have the honour to be with sentiments of the most perfect esteem Dear Sir Your friend & servant,
PrC (DLC). In DLC: Monroe Papers there is a PrC of a two-page Tr in TJ’s hand consisting of extracts from his present letter to Carrington and from one to Cutting, for the identification of which see notes below and to TJ to Cutting, 8 July 1788.
TJ’s query to Carrington about the right of direct taxation was in his letter of 21 Dec. 1787. J. B. Cutting, in England at this time, gave John Adams an excellent account of the bankruptcies in London and of their impact on American relations; he reported that these had created much “commotion not only in the metropolis but nearly throughout the Kingdom. The failure of Fordyce in 1772 was a light business comparatively speaking. The engagements of the single House of Livesey & Co., whose paper circulated throughout the nation, are said to be [stopped] for no less a sum than fifteen hundred thousand pounds, not one half of which can ever be paid. The house of Potter & Lewis stopped payment on the same day for more than three hundred thousand. One of this last house was it is said committed to New Gate this last week on a charge of forgery. Both these houses have been playing a deep and dangerous game in the American market. It seems their intent was to monopolise the cotton and linnen branches entirely. With this view they have been pouring immense quantities of goods into every part of the United States for years past and it appears that their orders have been to sell almost at any rate. In various instances accordingly invoices have been disposed of thirty percent below prime cost, and thus has such incredible quantities of our specie been absorp’d and remitted hither, while our native and fair importers have found it impossible to buy abroad or sell at home without ruin.—In fine sir such a scene of wild speculation and extravagant and pernicious management both in England and elsewhere is now disclosed as astonishes everybody. Nor do the most sagacious people here pretend to predict the end of it. Everybody who has been concerned in circulating bills through all England is more or less affected, and new failures occur every hour. It is computed that at least three millions in private paper, which was unquestionable property to all mercantile intents and purposes one fortnight ago, is now annihilated. Upwards of forty thousand manufacturers in the County of Lancashire are destitute of employment, and ripe for mischief.” Cutting added that these laborers were now lamenting their credulity in putting savings into the hands of bankers, and that both the minister and the Bank of England had been appealed to for assistance in the mounting crisis, but that neither of them “have, can or dare grant it.” He concluded: “When the affair first commenced, the whole mischief was attributed to the perfidy of the merchants and people of America. But since the nature of the business has been developed, not a whisper of the kind vibrates. On the contrary the calumnies against the United States and her mercantile citizens begin to attenuate and expire. People of Candour and discernment begin to own that one of the causes of tardy payments from American debtors has been the monstrous conduct of a few British merchants themselves.” This was a very brief attenuation, however; in a letter a few days later Cutting reported that “an American merchant and a bankrupt are become almost convertible terms in London. And in the present situation of our governments and the ruinous ballance of trade against us … how can it be otherwise? And what provokes my indignation in this business is that a swarm of adventurers from the United States and british swindling speculators … have been flung from the mercantile feculence of each country upon the other.” He predicted that out of this crisis would come a “vast immigration of industrious and ingenious manufacturers” and mechanics who were standing on tip-toe ready to emigrate, but were held back by “the frightful stories that the Americans have no government capable of property or freedom, private or public, which are constantly circulated throughout Europe” (Cutting to Adams, 17 and 28 May 1788; MHi: AMT).
- 1. At this point TJ changed “was” to “is” by overwriting.
- 2. These two words interlined in substitution for “soon,” deleted.
- 3. These two words interlined in substitution for “will,” deleted.
- 4. PrC of extract mentioned above includes the whole of the matter enclosed in brackets (supplied), to which TJ prefixed the date-line and, at the close of this part of the extract, added: “To Colo. Edwd. Carrington.”