Without a doubt, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential Presidents of our countries history. He was a thoughtful man who placed much value education and knowledge. As any person is capable of having a blind spot or two, Jefferson and his contemporaries made decisions that almost cost us a country 200 years ago.
For those of you not too busy following the hockey and basketball playoffs, you may have missed that this year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Subtract a few more sub-groups of people paying attention since we are rapidly finishing this season’s thrilling competitions on Dancing With the Stars, something called “The Voice” and of course…. “This is your American Idol.” (Cue Ryan Seacrest)
Top all of this off with the beginning of the baseball season and its no wonder no one has time to remember a War that we almost lost.
A quick recap of the lead up to that obscure little war follows:
The British Navy (the single most powerful fleet in the world) was running amuck on the high seas capturing both military and non-military vessels with the intent of retrieving “their” deserters.
Over ten thousand US sailors were thought to have been taken into chains by the British to support its global fleet. The incursion of rights on a sovereign did not escape the ears of those who lead the US.
By 1812, the war drums were beating and President Monroe was forced into action. What soon became apparent however was that a political decision which became a Presidential policy under Jefferson was about to put the nation in greater peril than at any time before and any time since.
Jefferson was what would be describes as a “Liberal” in the truest since of the word. He was an honest and sincere man who prided himself on seeing things in a very retrospective way. One of those things was that standing armies and navies were a drag on the country and invited attack from potential adversaries.
"I am for relying for internal defense on our militia solely till actual invasion, and for such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbors from such depredations as we have experienced; and not for a standing army in time of peace which may overawe the public sentiment; nor for a navy which, by its own expenses and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, will grind us with public burthens and sink us under them." –1799
President Jefferson took care of sinking the Navy by issuing directions to Congress to scrap or not maintain the Navy that had beaten the enemy in the Barbary Coast and replace it with “gunboats”
The Mariners Museum in Newport News tells the story much better than I can about the consequences:
It is but by the Grace of God and the spirit of the American people who refused to surrender that the entire country did not go up in flames with the White House when the British fleet and invading army pushed Jefferson’s toy boats to the side of the playing field.
As congress and whoever will be President next year face a budget that will be both crippling and necessarily cruel, all bets are off. Promises made for generations will fall faster than a driving rain and there will be real suffering. We are greater in debt than we have ever been in both real and imagined dollars. Instead of tackling those debts head on, our leaders are more divided than ever before. This comes at a time when other countries such as China are growing in both financial strength and in military might.
The choice we will be faced with will be one of two courses. Will we follow the Jeffersonian model of retrenchment in hopes that the enemy will simply restrain himself in the future? Or will we continue to support the development and growth of new ships and technologies for future generations? The choice should be pretty clear.
My fear is that it will be expedient to push the decisions to the next generations. With the speed of technology however, will they have the chance to make up for our mistakes before the enemy is entering Chicago, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Omaha or Denver? (I have already given up on the coasts and anything on the Southern border has already been invaded by now.)