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America: I. (1761–1837). 1906.

John Randolph

On Offensive War with England

I AM perfectly aware that upon entering on this subject we go into it manacled, handcuffed, and tongue-tied. Gentlemen know that our lips are sealed in subjects of momentous foreign relations which are indissolubly linked with the present question, and which would serve to throw a great light on it in every respect relevant to it. I will, however, endeavor to hobble over the subject as well as my fettered limbs and palsied tongue will enable me to do it.

I am not surprised to hear this resolution discussed by its friends as a war measure. They say, it is true, that it is not a war measure; but they defend it on principles which would justify none but war measures, and seem pleased with the idea that it may prove the forerunner of war. If war is necessary, if we have reached this point, let us have war. But while I have life I will never consent to these incipient war measures which in their commencement breathe nothing but peace, the they plunge us at last into war.

Do gentlemen remember the capture of Cornwallis on land because De Grasse maintained the dominion of the ocean? To my mind no position is more clear than that if we go to war with Great Britain, Charleston and Boston, the Chesapeake and the Hudson, will be invested by British squadrons. Will you call on the Count de Grasse to relieve them? or shall we apply to Admiral Gravina, or Admiral Villeneuve, to raise the blockade?

What is the question in dispute? The carrying trade. What part of it? The fair, the honest, and the useful trade that is engaged in carrying our own production to foreign markets and bringing back their productions in exchange? No, sir; it is that carrying trade which covers enemy’s property and carries the coffee, the sugar, and other West India products to the mother country.

No, sir; if this great agricultural nation is to be governed by Salem and Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and Baltimore and Norfolk and Charleston, let gentlemen come out and say so; and let a committee of public safety be appointed from those towns to carry on the government.

I, for one, will not mortgage my property and my liberty to carry on this trade. The nation said so seven years ago; I said so then, and I say so now. It is not for the honest carrying trade of America, but for this mushroom, this fungus of war—for a trade which, as soon as the nations of Europe are at peace, will no longer exist; it is for this that the spirit of avaricious traffic would plunge us into war.

But we are asked, are we willing to bend the neck to England; to submit to her outrages? No, sir; I answer that it will be time enough for us to tell gentlemen what we will do to vindicate the violation of our flag on the ocean when they shall have told us what they have done in resentment of the violation of the actual territory of the United States by Spain, the true territory of the United States—not your new-fangled country over the Mississippi, but the good old United States—part of Georgia, of the old thirteen States, where citizens have been taken, not from our ships, but from our actual territory. When gentlemen have taken the padlock from our mouths I shall be ready to tell them what I will do relative to our dispute with Britain on the law of nations, on contraband, and such stuff.

France is at war with England; suppose her power on the continent of Europe no greater than it is on the ocean. How would she make her enemy feel it? There would be a perfect non-conductor between them. So with the United States and England; she scarcely presents to us a vulnerable point. Her commerce is carried on, for the most part, in fleets; where in single ships, they are stout and well armed-very different from the state of her trade during the American War, when her merchantmen became the prey of paltry privateers. Great Britain has been too long at war with the three most powerful maritime nations of Europe not to have learnt how to protect her trade. She can afford convoy to it all; she has eight hundred ships in commission: the navies of her enemies are annihilated.

Thus this war has presented the new and curious political spectacle of a regular annual increase (and to an immense amount) of her imports and exports, and tonnage and revenue, and all the insignia of accumulating wealth, while in every former war, without exception, these have suffered a greater or less diminution. And wherefore? Because she has driven France, Spain, and Holland from the ocean. Their marine is no more. I verily believe that ten English ships of the line would not decline a meeting with the combined fleets of those nations.

But this is not my only objection to entering upon this naval warfare. I am averse to a naval war with any nation whatever. I was opposed to the naval war of the last administration, and I am as ready to oppose a naval war of the present administration should they meditate such a measure. What! shall this great mammoth of the American forest leave his native element and plunge into the water in a mad contest with the shark? Let him beware that his proboscis is not bitten off in the engagement. Let him stay on shore, and not be excited by the mussels and periwinkles on the strand, or political bears, in a boat to venture on the perils of the deep.

Gentlemen say, Will you not protect your violated rights? and I say, Why take to water, where you can neither fight nor swim? Look at France; see her vessels stealing from port to port on her own coast; and remember that she is the first military power of the earth, and as a naval people second only to England. Take away the British navy, and France to-morrow is the tyrant of the ocean.

This brings me to the second point. How far it is politic in the United States to throw their weight into the scale of France at this moment?—from whatever motive to aid the views of her gigantic ambition—to make her mistress of the sea and land—to jeopardize the liberties of mankind. Sir, you may help to crush Great Britain—you may assist in breaking down her naval dominion, but you can not succeed to it. The iron scepter of the ocean will pass into his hands who wears the iron crown of the land. You may then expect a new code of maritime law. Where will you look for redress?

But, sir, I have yet a more cogent reason against going to war for the honor of the flag in the narrow seas, or any other maritime punctilio. It springs from my attachment to the principles of the government under which I live. I declare, in the face of day, that this government was not instituted for the purposes of offensive war. No; it was framed, to use its own language, for the common defense and the general welfare, which are inconsistent with offensive war.

I call that offensive war which goes out of our jurisdiction and limits, for the attainment or protection of objects not within those limits and that jurisdiction. As in 1798 I was opposed to this species of warfare because I believer it would raze the Constitution to the very foundation, so in 1806 I am opposed to it, and on the same grounds. No sooner do you put the Constitution to this use—to a test which it is by no means calculated to endure, than its incompetency to such purposes becomes manifest and apparent to all. I fear, if you go into a foreign war for a circuitous, unfair carrying trade, you will come out without your Constitution. Have you not contractors enough in this House? Or do you want to be overrun and devoured by commissaries and all the vermin of contract?

For my part I never will go to war but in self-defense. I have no desire for conquests—no ambition to possess Nova Scotia; I hold the liberties of this people at a higher rate. Much more am I indisposed to war when among the first means for carrying it on I see gentlemen propose the confiscation of debts due by government to individuals. Does a bona fide creditor know who holds his paper? Dare any honest man ask himself the question? ’Tis hard to say whether such principles are more detestably dishonest than they are weak and foolish. What, sir; will you go about with proposals for opening a loan in one hand and it sponge for the national debt in the other?

But the gentleman has told you that we ought to go to war, if for nothing else, for the fur trade. Now, sir, the people on whose support he seems to calculate, follow, let me tell him, a better business; and let me add that while men are happy at home reaping their own fields, the fruits of their labor and industry, there is little danger of their being induced to go sixteen or seventeen hundred miles in pursuit of beavers, raccoons or opossums—much less of going to war for the privilege. They are better employed where they are.

This trade, sir, may be important to Britain, to nations who have exhausted every resource, of industry at home—bowed down by taxation and wretchedness. Let them, in God’s name, in they please, follow the fur trade. They may, for me, catch every beaver in North America. Yes, sir, our people have a better occupation—a safe, profitable, honorable employment.

Gentlemen may take notes if they please; but I will never, from any motives short of self-defense, enter upon war. I will never be instrumental to the ambitious schemes of Bonaparte, nor put into his hands what will enable him to wield the world; and on the very principle that I wished success to the French arms in 1793. And wherefore? Because the case is changed. Great Britain can never again see the year 1760. Her Continental influence is gone for ever. Let who will be uppermost on the continent of Europe, she must find more than a counterpoise for her strength. Her race is run. She can only be formidable as a maritime power; and even as such perhaps not long. Are you going to justify the acts of the last administration, for which they have been deprived of the government, at our instance? Are you going back to the ground of 1798–9?

But, sir, as French is the fashion of the day, I may be asked for my projet. I can readily tell gentlemen what I will not do. I will not propitiate any foreign nation with money. I will not launch into a naval war with Great Britain, altho I am ready to meet her at the Cowpens or Bunker’s Hill. And for this plain reason.

We are a great land animal, and our business is on shore. I will send her no money, sir, on any pretext whatsoever, much less on pretense of buying Labrador or Botany Bay, when my real object was to secure limits which she formally acknowledged at the peace of 1783. I go further—I would (if anything) have laid an embargo. This would have got our own property home and our adversary’s into our power. If there is any wisdom left among us the first step toward hostility will always be an embargo. In six months all your mercantile megrims would vanish. As to us, altho it would cut deep, we can stand it. Without such a precaution, go to war when you will, you go to the wall. As to debts, strike the balance to-morrow and England is, I believe, in our debt.

I hope, sir, to be excused for proceeding in this desultory course. I flatter myself I shall not have occasion again to trouble you; I know not that I shall be able—certainly not willing, unless provoked in self-defense. I ask your attention to the character of the inhabitants of that southern country on whom gentlemen rely for the support of their measure. Who and what are they? A simple agricultural people, accustomed to travel in peace to market with the produce of their labor. Who takes it from us?

Another people devoted to manufactures—our sole source of supply. I have seen some stuff in the newspapers about manufacturers in Saxony, and about a man who is no longer the chief of a dominant faction. The greatest man whom I ever knew—the immortal author of the letters of Curtius—has remarked the proneness of cunning people to wrap up and disguise, in well-selected phrases, doctrines too deformed and detestable to bear exposure in naked words; by a judicious choice of epithets to draw the attention from the lurking principle beneath and perpetuate delusion. But a little while ago, and any man might be proud to be considered as the head of the Republican party. Now, it seems, ’tis reproachful to be deemed the chief of a dominant faction.

Mr. Chairman, I am sensible of having detained the committee longer than I ought—certainly much longer than I intended. I am equally sensible of their politeness, and not less so, sir, of your patient attention. It is your own indulgence, sir, badly requited indeed, to which you owe this persecution. I might offer another apology for these undigested, desultory remarks—my never having seen the treasury documents. Until I came into the House this morning I have been stretched on a sick bed.