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Ambassador Jefferson

Mises Daily: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 by

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[Jefferson (1926; 2007)]

Throughout the period of his ambassadorship, Mr. Jefferson found little doing in the way of business. Vergennes was polite, considerate, straightforward. They discussed one article of commerce after another, but could never come to much more than nominal terms. In the matter of rice, flour, fish, and "provisions of all sorts," the French were doing quite well as they were. Their own colonies supplied them with indigo, and "they thought it better than ours." They could make a good market for American peltry and furs, but the English were holding all the northwestern American posts, and therefore the supply of these commodities was effectively shut off.

The only market that really amounted to anything was for tobacco. France was then buying 2 million livres' worth of American tobacco every year; but most of it was bought in London, and "for what they bought in the United States, the money was still remitted to London by bills of exchange." Mr. Jefferson suggested to Vergennes that this was not good business — that "if they would permit our merchants to sell this article freely, they would bring it here and take the returns on the spot, in merchandise, not money."

Vergennes had no trouble about seeing the point — he "observed that my proposition contained what doubtless was useful" — but political considerations stood in the way. In plain words, he could not admit American tobacco to the French ports without incurring a head-on collision with the Farmers-General.

The French crown had, some time before, turned over the business of tax collection to private enterprise. The private company called the Farmers-General paid the king 28 million livres flat revenue on tobacco, and assumed all the trouble and expense of reimbursing themselves out of the consumer. They had a similar monopoly on salt and on certain tolls collected on agricultural products at the gates of French cities. As a rule, they collected what the traffic would bear; and hence in almost no time at all they grew up into the richest and most powerful institution in France — far too powerful for any minister to tackle with a proposition to give up one of their best monopolies. Vergennes put it gently "that it was always hazardous to alter arrangements of long standing and of such infinite combinations with the fiscal system."

He himself was quite for Mr. Jefferson's proposals, but they would have to take their chances with Calonne, the comptroller-general; and Calonne, as an honorable official, was properly scandalized at the suggestion that the good faith of the nation, pledged by implication to the Farmers-General, should in any way be tarnished. Later on, perhaps, when the Farmers-General had had time to turn around, it was not impossible that the royal understanding with them might be modified by some kind of compromise; but at present nothing could be done. Calonne knew which side his bread was buttered on. Mr. Jefferson remarked in reporting this matter to Congress, that "the influence of the Farmers-General has been heretofore found sufficient to shake a minister in his office," and that if Calonne opposed the tobacco monopoly, "the joint interests of France and America would be insufficient counterpoise in his favor," and he would lose his place.

"Government, in short, was, as Voltaire said, a mere device for taking money out of one man’s pocket and putting it into another's."

After a year and a half of this kind of shilly-shallying, Mr. Jefferson writes mournfully, "What a cruel reflection, that a rich country can not long be a free one!" Wherever his eyes rested, he saw the French producer laboring under "all the oppressions which result from the nature of the general government, and from that of their particular tenures, and of the seignorial government to which they are subject." Government, in short, was, as Voltaire said, a mere device for taking money out of one man's pocket and putting it into another's. The European governments, he writes to Rutledge, are "governments of wolves over sheep."

All he saw confirmed him in the view which he had laid down at the age of 30, in his paper on The Rights of British America, saying that "the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest"; and in the Declaration of Independence, saying that governments are instituted among men to secure certain inherent and inalienable rights, and that "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

A visit to England during this year stiffened his convictions. In February 1786, John Adams sent for him to come over to London to assist in the negotiation of treaties with Portugal and Tripoli. Here he saw a population expropriated from the land, and existing at the mercy of industrial employers, with the enormous exactions of monopoly standing as a fixed charge upon the producer, though not so heavy as in France — the French producers "pay about one-half their produce in rent; the English, in general, about a third." The British governmental system was steadfastly on the side of the land monopolists who expropriated the people and of the industrialists who exploited them; it was really their agent.

The aristocracy of England, which comprehends the nobility, the wealthy commoners, the high grades of priesthood and the officers of government, have the laws and government in their hands [and] have so managed them as to reduce the eleemosynary class, or paupers, below the means of supporting life, even by labour. [They] have forced the laboring class, whether employed in agriculture or the arts, to the maximum of labour which the construction of the human body can endure, and to the minimum of food, and of the meanest kind, which will preserve it in life and in strength sufficient to perform its functions.

As for the paupers, they "are used as tools to maintain their own wretchedness, and to keep down the laboring portion by shooting them whenever the desperation produced by the cravings of their stomachs drives them into riots." Over and above these patriotic duties, the paupers also "furnish materials for armies and navies to defend their country, exercise piracy on the ocean, and carry conflagration, plunder and devastation to the shores of all those who endeavour to withstand their aggressions. Such," he concludes bitterly, "is the happiness of scientific England."

Having this view of the English and French governments, Mr. Jefferson was always prompt to differentiate their character from that of their victims. The individuals of the English nation are "as faithful to their private engagements and duties, as honourable, as worthy, as those of any nation of earth," and therefore the country "presents a singular phenomenon of an honest people whose constitution, from its nature, must render their government forever dishonest." He had already remarked a similar distinction in favor of the French people, as bearing "the most benevolent, the most gay and amiable character of which the human form is susceptible," and yet as "loaded with misery by kings, nobles and priests, and by them alone." France is "the worst-governed country on earth," and the British government

the most flagitious which has existed since the days of Philip of Macedon.… It is not only founded in corruption itself, but insinuates the same poison into the bowels of every other, corrupts its councils, nourishes factions, stirs up revolutions, and places its own happiness in fomenting commotions and civil wars among others, thus rendering itself truly the hostis humani generis.

The practical upshot of this state of things is, as he writes John Adams, that "as for France and England, with all their progress in science, the one is a den of robbers, and the other of pirates."

Still, as an honest broker with goods to sell, Mr. Jefferson was disposed to lay aside his private opinions and deal with these people if he could. After all, nations must live, and to do so they must seek their advantage where they can find it. He asked no favors of the French ministry; he represented merely the enlightened self-interest of America, and was trying to elicit a response from theirs. He had no prejudices against the English government that would stand out against being polite and pleasant about matters of reciprocal advantage. He was aware, as he said late in life, that "no two nations can be so helpful to each other as friends nor so hurtful as enemies"; and, indeed, if the English government could only bring itself to "treat us with justice and equity, I should myself feel with great strength the ties which bind us together, of origin, language, laws and manners."

He had come late and reluctantly into the movement for American independence, believing, as most of the colonists did, that if they could get a working measure of economic independence, political independence was not worth the cost of a quarrel. "If I could permit myself to have national partialities," he writes in 1812, "and if the conduct of England would have permitted them to be directed towards her, they would have been so." And now, in his present capacity, as a peaceable commercial representative holding out the olive branch of profitable trade, he could clearly see that "a friendly, a just and a reasonable conduct on the part of the British might make us the main pillar of their prosperity and existence."

Why might not the British see it too? At all events, he would not be found at fault in the matter, now or ever, for the best of reasons. "As a political man, the English shall never find any passion in me either for or against them. Whenever their avarice of commerce will let them meet us fairly half way, I should meet them with satisfaction, because it would be for our benefit."

"'Merchants have no country,' Mr. Jefferson said. 'The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.'"

But he could not do a hand's turn in London; he was rebuffed everywhere. A witty saying has it that there is no such thing as good manners in England, but only the right and wrong kind of bad manners; and Mr. Jefferson was treated to a liberal display of both. He was presented to the king, as a matter of routine, and "it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious" than the sullen old maniac's attitude. As for the foreign minister, who was then the Marquis of Caermarthen, to whom he was officially introduced by Adams, "the distance and disinclination which he betrayed in his conversation, the vagueness and evasions of his answers to us, confirmed me in the belief of their aversion to have anything to do with us."

The two ambassadors, however, delivered a memorandum of their proposals, "Mr. Adams not despairing as much as I did of its effect." They never got within the gracious presence of the foreign minister again, though "we afterwards, by one or more notes, requested his appointment of an interview and conference, which, without directly declining, he evaded by pretences of other pressing occupations for the moment." This went on for seven weeks, and then Mr. Jefferson gave his mission up as hopeless and left England, insula inhospitabilis, as Tacitus had tersely styled it 2,000 years before; all he ever got out of Caermarthen being a stiff note in acknowledgment of his pour prendre congé, "wishing me a pleasant journey" back to Paris.

In the course of this experience, Mr. Jefferson became aware that the English were not merely biting off their nose to spite their face. Far otherwise: "the English think we can not prevent our countrymen from bringing our trade into their laps," he wrote his old friend John Page. "A conviction of this determines them to make no terms of commerce with us. They say they will pocket our carrying trade as well as their own." There was something in this. There is little sentiment of any kind in the course of trade, and no nationalism. "Merchants have no country," Mr. Jefferson said. "The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains."

American trade was drawn back into English channels after the Revolution by the irresistible attractions of price, quality, and credit facilities. The stupidity of the English government lay in their refusal to recognize this tendency handsomely and lay down an enlightened doctrine of free trade with America, as John Adams kept trying to persuade them to do. Instead, they gruffly slapped their pockets, and treated Adams's proposals with a porcine indifference that was a sure runner-up of economic war. "Ever since the accession of the present King of England," Mr. Jefferson observes to Carmichael in 1787, "that court has done what common sense would have dictated not to do"; and he writes at the same time to John Adams, that "I never yet found any general rule for foretelling what the British will do, but that of examining what they ought not to do."

Moreover, the British Ministry had been keeping its press agents busy throughout the decade since the war, in fomenting popular hatred of America. "You know well that that government always kept a kind of standing army of news-writers, who, without any regard to truth or what should be like truth, invented and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers.… No paper, therefore, comes out without a dose of paragraphs against America." Nothing could be done about it; if the British government did not know which side their bread was buttered on, they must learn by experience. An economic war would cost the United States something; it would be regrettable and silly and all that, but apparently it must come.

Nothing will bring the British to reason but physical obstruction applied to their bodily senses. We must show that we are capable of foregoing commerce with them before they will be capable of consenting to an equal commerce. We have all the world besides open to supply us with gewgaws, and all the world to buy our tobacco.

Mr. Jefferson put it even more explicitly to Colonel Smith that "of all nations on earth, the British require to be treated with the most hauteur. They require to be kicked into common good manners." Even John Adams, who had some misgivings about Mr. Jefferson's despondent estimate of the situation, finally came around to the same way of thinking. After the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 had rubbed a sense of reality into his fine old head, he wrote Mr. Jefferson that "Britain will never be our friend until we are her master."