Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark


Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael

Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, August 2, 1790
H. A. Washington, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. IX. Washington, D.C.: Taylor and Maury, 1854. Library of Congress
The importance of the Mississippi River to American growth and economic success is uppermost in Jefferson's mind as Spain and England seem on the brink of war.

Aug. 2. 1790.

Heads of Consideration for Navigation of the Missisipi for Mr. Carmichael

We have a right to the navigation of the Mississippi Maps: 1. by Nature. 2. by Treaty.

It is necessary to us.

More than half the territory of the United States is on the waters of that river. 200,000 of our citizens are settled on them, of whom forty thousand bear arms. These have no other outlet for their tobacco, rice, corn, hemp, lumber, house timber, ship timber.

We have hitherto respected the indecision of Spain, because we wish peace; —because our western citizens have had vent at home for their productions.

A surplus of production begins now to demand foreign markets. Whenever they shall say, "We cannot, we will not, be longer shut up," the United States will be reduced to the following dilemma: 1. To force them to acquiescence. 2. To separate from them, rather than take part in a war against Spain. 3. Or to preserve them in our Union, by joining them in the war.

The 1st is neither in our principles, nor in our power. 2d. A multitude of reasons decide against the second. It may suffice to speak out one: were we to give up half our territory rather than engage in a just war to preserve it, we should not keep the other half long. 3d. The third is the alternative we must adopt.

How are we to obtain that navigation?

(A.) By Force.

I. Acting separately. That we can effect this with certainty and promptitude, circumstances decide.

Objection. We cannot retain New Orleans, for instance, were we to take it.

Answer. A moderate force may be so secured, as to hold out till succored. Our succors can be prompt and effectual. Suppose, after taking it, we withdraw our force. If Spain retakes it by an expedition, we can recover it by a counter-expedition, and so as often as the case shall happen. Their expedition will be slow, expensive, and lead to catastrophes. Ours sudden, economical, and a check can have no consequences. We should associate the country to our Union. The inhabitants wish this. They are not disposed to be of the Spanish government. It is idle in Spain to suppose our Western inhabitants will unite with them. They could be quiet but a short time under a goverment so repugnant to their feelings. Were they to come under it for present purposes, it would be with a view to throw it off soon. Should they remain, they would communicate a spirit of independence to those with whom they should be mixed.

II. Acting in conjunction with Great Britain, and with a view to partition. The Floridas (including New Orleans Maps: ) would be assigned to us. Louisiana (or all the Western waters of the Mississippi Maps: ) to them. We confess that such an alliance is not what we would wish. Because it may eventually lead us into embarrassing situations with our best friend, and put the power of two neighbors into the hands of one. L. Lansdowne has declared he gave the Floridas to Spain rather than the United States as a bone of discord with the House of Bourbon, and of re-union with Great Britain. Connolly's attempt (as well as other facts) proves they keep it in view.

(B.) By Negotiation.

I. What must Spain do of necessity. The conduct of Spain has proved that the occlusion of the Mississippi is system with her. If she opens it now, it will be because forced by imperious circumstances. She will consequently shut it again when these circumstances cease. Treaty will be no obstacle. Irregularities, real or pretended, in our navigators, will furnish color enough. Perpetual broils, and finally war will ensue. Prudence and even necessity, imposes on us the law of settling the matter now, finally, and not by halves. With experience of the past and prospect of the future, it would be imbecility in us to accept the naked navigation. With that, we must have what is necessary to its use, and without which it would be useless to secure its continuance; that is, a port near the mouth to receive our vessels and protect the navigation. But even this will not secure the Floridas and Louisiana against Great Britain. If we are neutral, she will wrest those possessions from Spain. The inhabitants (French, English, Scotch, American) would prefer England to Spain.

II. What then had Spain better do of choice? Cede to us all the territory on our side of the Mississippi: on condition that we guarantee all her possessions on the Western waters of that river, she agreeing further, to subsidize us if the guarantee brings us into the war.

Should Great Britain possess herself of the Floridas and Louisiana, her governing principles are conquest, colonization, commerce, monopoly. She will establish powerful colonies in them. These can be poured into the Gulf of Mexico for any sudden enterprise there, or invade Mexico, their next neighbor, by land. Whilst a fleet co-operates along shore, and cuts off relief. And proceed successively from colony to colony.

With respect to us, if Great Britain establishes herself on our whole land-board our lot will be bloody and eternal war, or indissoluble confederacy. Which ought we to choose? What will be the lot of the Spanish colonies in the jaws of such a confederacy? What will secure the ocean against the monopoly?

Safer for Spain that we should be her neighbor, than England. Conquest not in our principles: inconsistent with our government. Not our interest to cross the Mississippi for ages. And will never be our interest to remain united with those who do. Intermediate chances save the trouble of calculating so far forward.

Consequences of this cession, and guarantee:

1. Every subject of difference will be removed from between Spain and the United States. 2. Our interest will be strongly engaged in her retaining her American possessions. 3. Spain will be quieted as to Louisiana, and her territories west of that. 4. She may employ her whole force in defence of her islands and Southern possessions. 5. If we preserve our neutrality, it will be a very partial one to her. 6. If we are forced into the war, it will be, as we wish, on the side of the House of Bourbon. 7. Her privateers will commit formidable depredation on the British trade, and occupy much of their force. 8. By withholding supplies of provision, as well as by concurring in expeditions, the British islands will be in imminent danger. 9. Their expenses of precaution, both for their continental and insular possessions, will be so augmented as to give a hope of running their credit down. In fine, for a narrow slip of barren, detached and expensive country, Spain secures the rest of her territory, and makes an ally where she might have a dangerous enemy.