A historically significant letter written by Thomas Jefferson surfaced right where one family least expected it – in a box in the attic of their Southern home. While the letter has been published before, both online and in the "Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series," the original version is now up for sale to the general public for the first time.
Mr. Jefferson’s letter, penned on St. Valentine’s Day in 1815, was addressed to then US ambassador to France, William Crawford, in response to an earlier letter. The letter, written in the final days of the War of 1812, offers a glimpse into the mindset of the famous president in his twilight years.
With the War of 1812 drawing to a close, Jefferson shared his opinions of American virtue and the British system with Crawford.
“Although he was retired at the time he wrote the letter, there’s a self congratulatory tone to it,” says to James Alexander Dun, professor of history at Princeton University. Dr. Dun told The Christian Science Monitor by phone that the perseverance of the United States throughout the war, and the small success it enjoyed during the war, likely served as a vindication of Jefferson’s ideas and his faith in the United States.
The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate, and is little more than a vague memory from high school history classes for many in the United States today. But at the time, the ability of the United States to hold its own in an international conflict boosted nationalism and led to an “era of good feeling” about the American form of government.
“There was no clear winner, but the war effort helped bind Americans together, strengthening a sense of national unity and providing more support for federal power,” writes Annette Gordon-Reed, Jefferson expert and co-author with Peter Onuf of “Most Blessed of Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination," in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.
"We owe to their past follies and wrong the incalculable advantage of being made independent of them,” wrote Jefferson of the British in the letter.
After the close of the American Revolution, Britain decided to maintain its territorial interests in North America, arming native Americans in an effort to prevent American expansion to the west.
“The War of 1812 was a continuation of the American Revolution with the same combatants going at it again – British Americans, Native Americans, and enslaved blacks who wanted freedom,” says Dr. Gordon-Reed.
After years of seized shipping vessels and forced impressments of American sailors for service on British ships, then President James Madison sought and won a declaration of war on Britain from Congress. Despite strong opposition from certain factions within the country – namely New Englanders who had little to gain from the war and the remains of the Federalist party – the United States and Britain fought for several years, both on the high seas and on United States territory.
Peace was finally declared on February 18, 1815, just four days after this letter was written. Although Jefferson was retired at the time, he was “very much still involved in working with fellow members of the Republican party,” says Dun.
Crawford, the letter’s recipient, was one such Republican.
One thing in particular is clear for readers – the utter loathing Jefferson held for Britain.
“Once he grew disillusioned with the British Empire and became a revolutionary,” writes Gordon-Reed, “he never looked back. He had no nostalgia for the British system at all. He came to hate it in the way that a person who once loved someone or something can come to hate it.”
Dun echoed Gordon-Reed, saying that this letter is a reminder of the passion of the Founding Fathers. In this instance, he says, Jefferson’s passionate hatred for the British is on display.
“People might be interested in this letter,” says Dun, “because it is always interesting to hear Jefferson and other Founding Fathers utter ardent opinions.”
Thomas Jefferson was a particularly inspired correspondent, who took letter writing so seriously that he kept a detailed ledger of his correspondence and its recipients.
Although most letters like this one are donated to private collections, a historical document dealer known as the Raab Collection listed Jefferson’s letter for sale on the Fourth of July, 240 years after the United States formally adopted another Jefferson text, the Declaration of Independence.