Jefferson on the Evils of War

The Jeffersonian principles of peace, commerce, honest friendship with all nations, and entangling alliances with none, as annunciated in Jefferson’s first inaugural address, are no where more evident than in his opinion of war.

War and Peace

Jefferson was a man of peace. President Polk will ever be associated with the Mexican War, Lincoln with the Civil War, McKinley with the Spanish-American War, Wilson with World War I, Roosevelt with World War II, Johnson with Vietnam, Bush I with Gulf War I, and Bush II with the ongoing debacle in Iraq. But such is not the case with Jefferson. Even though he is usually considered to be one of the “great” presidents, he is not remembered as such because he was associated with a major war.

As a man of peace, he often made a contrast between the blessings of peace and the scourge of war:

I love peace, and am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer. War has been avoided from a due sense of the miseries, and the demoralization it produces, and of the superior blessings of a state of peace and friendship with all mankind. I value peace, and I should unwillingly see any event take place which would render war a necessary resource. Having seen the people of all other nations bowed down to the earth under the wars and prodigalities of their rulers, I have cherished their opposites, peace, economy, and riddance of public debt, believing that these were the high road to public as well as private prosperity and happiness. Believing that the happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace, that on these alone a stable prosperity can be founded, that the evils of war are great in their endurance, and have a long reckoning for ages to come, I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side. I do not believe war the most certain means of enforcing principles. Those peaceable coercions which are in the power of every nation, if undertaken in concert and in time of peace, are more likely to produce the desired effect. We love and we value peace; we know its blessings from experience. We abhor the follies of war, and are not untried in its distresses and calamities.

On several occasions, Jefferson presented his philosophy of peace to some Indian tribes:

The evils which of necessity encompass the life of man are sufficiently numerous. Why should we add to them by voluntarily distressing and destroying one another? Peace, brothers, is better than war. In a long and bloody war, we lose many friends, and gain nothing. Let us then live in peace and friendship together, doing to each other all the good we can. Born in the same land, we ought to live as brothers, doing to each other all the good we can, and not listening to wicked men, who may endeavor to make us enemies. By living in peace, we can help and prosper one another; by waging war, we can kill and destroy many on both sides; but those who survive will not be the happier for that. How much better is it for neighbours to help than to hurt one another. How much happier must it make them. If you will cease to make war on one another, if you will live in friendship with all mankind, you can employ all your time in providing food and clothing for yourselves and your families; your men will not be destroyed in war; and your women and children will lie down to sleep in their cabins without fear of being surprised by their enemies and killed or carried away. Your numbers will be increased instead of diminishing, and you will live in plenty and in quiet.

The Evils of War

Because Jefferson was a man of peace, he considered war to be a great evil:

I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind. The insults & injuries committed on us by both the belligerent parties, from the beginning of 1793 to this day, & still continuing, cannot now be wiped off by engaging in war with one of them. I have seen enough of one war never to wish to see another. One war, such as that of our Revolution, is enough for one life. The most successful war seldom pays for its losses. War is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer. War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses. We have obtained by a peaceable appeal to justice, in four months, what we should not have obtained under seven years of war, the loss of one hundred thousand lives, an hundred millions of additional debt, many hundred millions worth of produce and property lost for want of market, or in seeking it, and that demoralization which war superinduces on the human mind. Great sacrifices of interest have certainly been made by our nation under the difficulties latterly forced upon us by transatlantic powers. But every candid and reflecting mind must agree with you, that while these were temporary and bloodless, they were calculated to avoid permanent subjection to foreign law and tribute, relinquishment of independent rights, and the burthens, the havoc, and desolations of war.

War and the Nations

Jefferson did not consider a nation to be great because of its military might: “Wars and contentions, indeed, fill the pages of history with more matter. But more blessed is that nation whose silent course of happiness furnishes nothing for history to say.” He considered war between nations to be “the consequence of a want of respectability in the national character.” Regarding the attitude toward war of the people of the United States, Jefferson believed that “no country, perhaps, was ever so thoroughly against war as ours. These dispositions pervade every description of its citizens, whether in or out of office.”

He knew firsthand the folly of getting involved in European wars:

Wars with any European powers are devoutly to be deprecated. For years we have been looking as spectators on our brethren in Europe, afflicted by all those evils which necessarily follow an abandonment of the moral rules which bind men and nations together. Connected with them in friendship and commerce, we have happily so far kept aloof from their calamitous conflicts, by a steady observance of justice towards all, by much forbearance and multiplied sacrifices. At length, however, all regard to the rights of others having been thrown aside, the belligerent powers have beset the highway of commercial intercourse with edicts which, taken together, expose our commerce and mariners, under almost every destination, a prey to their fleets and armies. Each party, indeed, would admit our commerce with themselves, with the view of associating us in their war against the other. But we have wished war with neither. It is much to be desired that war may be avoided, if circumstances will admit. Nor in the present maniac state of Europe, should I estimate the point of honor by the ordinary scale. I believe we shall on the contrary, have credit with the world, for having made the avoidance of being engaged in the present unexampled war, our first object. The cannibals of Europe are going to eating one another again. A war between Russia and Turkey is like the battle of the kite and snake. Whichever destroys the other, leaves a destroyer the less for the world. This pugnacious humor of mankind seems to be the law of his nature, one of the obstacles to too great multiplication provided in the mechanism of the Universe. The cocks of the henyard kill one another up. Bears, bulls, rams, do the same. And the horse, in his wild state, kills all the young males, until worn down with age and war, some vigorous youth kills him, and takes to himself the harem of females. I hope we shall prove how much happier for man the Quaker policy is, and that the life of the feeder is better than that of the fighter; and it is some consolation that the desolation by these maniacs of one part of the earth is the means of improving it in other parts. Let the latter be our office, and let us milk the cow, while the Russian holds her by the horns, and the Turk by the tail.

He recognized that geography was one of the great advantages of the United States: “The insulated state in which nature has placed the American continent should so far avail it that no spark of war kindled in the other quarters of the globe should be wafted across the wide oceans which separate us from them.” With a very few exceptions, the United States has always had to cross oceans to wage its wars.

Jefferson realized that the push for war comes, not from the people in the nations, but from the governments of the nations:

We have received a report that the French Directory has proposed a declaration of war against the United States to the Council of Ancients, who have rejected it. Thus we see two nations, who love one another affectionately, brought by the ill temper of their executive administrations, to the very brink of a necessity to imbrue their hands in the blood of each other. The agents of the two people [United States and France] are either great bunglers or great rascals, when they cannot preserve that peace which is the universal wish of both. The people now see that France has sincerely wished peace, and their seducers [federalists] have wished war, as well for the loaves and fishes which arise out of war expenses, as for the chance of changing the Constitution, while the people should have time to contemplate nothing but the levies of men and money. No one wakes up in the morning with the desire to drop bombs on people in foreign countries that he does not know, have never injured him in any way, and are no threat to him or his family. This desire is always government induced and government sponsored. When it comes to mass murder, the state takes a backseat to no one.

Jefferson thought it beneficial for a nation to avoid war:

Never was so much false arithmetic employed on any subject, as that which has been employed to persuade nations that it is their interest to go to war. Were the money which it has cost to gain, at the close of a long war, a little town, or a little territory, the right to cut wood here, or to catch fish there, expended in improving what they already possess, in making roads, opening rivers, building ports, improving the arts, and finding employment for their idle poor, it would render them much stronger, much wealthier and happier. This I hope will be our wisdom.

Jefferson believed that the best policy for the United States toward other nations was one of friendship and nonintervention:

Unmeddling with the affairs of other nations, we had hoped that our distance and our dispositions would have left us free, in the example and indulgence of peace with all the world. To cherish and maintain the rights and liberties of our citizens, and to ward from them the burthens, the miseries, and the crimes of war, by a just and friendly conduct toward all nations, were among the most obvious and important duties of those to whom the management of their public interests have been confided; and happy shall we be if a conduct guided by these views on our part, shall secure to us a reciprocation of peace and justice from other nations. The desire to preserve our country from the calamities and ravages of war, by cultivating a disposition, and pursuing a conduct, conciliatory and friendly to all nations, has been sincerely entertained and faithfully followed.

He much preferred commerce to war: “War is not the best engine for us to resort to; nature has given us one in our commerce, which, if properly managed, will be a better instrument for obliging the interested nations of Europe to treat us with justice.” The current U.S. foreign policy of belligerency, intervention, hegemony, and subjugation is a far cry from the example of Jefferson.

The Advent of War

It is true that Jefferson did believe in war under certain circumstances:

If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence. It is our duty still to endeavor to avoid war; but if it shall actually take place, no matter by whom brought on, we must defend ourselves. If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it. In that, I have no doubt, we shall act as one man. Obviously, traversing oceans to bomb places that many Americans cannot even locate on a map would not fall into this category.

But even though Jefferson realized that war might take place, he had his doubts as to whether we would be better off at its conclusion: “If we are forced into war [with France], we must give up political differences of opinion, and unite as one man to defend our country. But whether at the close of such a war, we should be as free as we are now, God knows.” If a war was necessary then it should not be undertaken “till our revenue shall be entirely liberated from debt. Then it will suffice for war, without creating new debt or taxes.” But Jefferson opposed “taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.”

He also did not believe in the bloodthirsty doctrine of “total war” that the United States has engaged in since 1862. In a model treaty drawn up while he was in France, Jefferson contended that if contracting parties went to war, their trade should not be interrupted, prisoners were to be given good treatment, merchants were to be given time to settle their affairs and depart peacefully from enemy territory, and women, children, and scholars were to be considered non-combatants. (It is inconceivable that Jefferson, or any of the Founding Fathers, could ever have considered women serving in combat or semi-combat roles à la Jessica Lynch.)

On actually abolishing war, Jefferson was certainly no utopian, and stated: “I hope it is practicable, by improving the mind and morals of society, to lessen the disposition to war; but of its abolition I despair.”

The Declaration of War

Jefferson was particularly concerned about the executive branch of government having the war power. Our modern Jeffersonian in Congress, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), was one of the few legislators to voice similar concerns as the U.S. was poised to invade Iraq. Here again is Jefferson:

The power of declaring war being with the Legislature, the Executive should do nothing necessarily committing them to decide for war in preference of non-intercourse, which will be preferred by a great many. I opposed the right of the President to declare anything future on the question, Shall there or shall there not be war? Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided. I have barely instructed the officers stationed in the neighborhood of the aggressions to protect our citizens from violence, to patrol within the borders actually delivered to us, and not to go out of them but when necessary to repel an inroad or to rescue a citizen or his property. As the Executive cannot decide the question of war on the affirmative side, neither ought it to do so on the negative side, by preventing the competent body from deliberating on the question. Congress [must] be called [if there] is a justifiable cause of war; and as the Executive cannot decide the question of war on the affirmative side, neither ought it to do so on the negative side by preventing the competent body from deliberating on the question. We have already given in example one effectual check to the Dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay. The making reprisal on a nation is a very serious thing. Remonstrance and refusal of satisfaction ought to precede; and when reprisal follows, it is considered as an act of war, and never yet failed to produce it in the case of a nation able to make war; besides, if the case were important enough to require reprisal, and ripe for that step, Congress must be called on to take it; the right of reprisal being expressly lodged with them by the Constitution, and not with the Executive. The question of war being placed by the Constitution with the Legislature alone, respect to that [makes] it [the Executive’s] duty to restrain the operations of our militia to those merely defensive; and considerations involving the public satisfaction, and peculiarly my own, require that the decision of that question, whichever way it be, should be pronounced definitely by the Legislature themselves.

Standing Armies

Like the British Cato and the American Brutus, Jefferson was averse to standing armies:

There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army. Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon, we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which have never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place. Nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace. The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.

In another statement regarding relations with the Indians, Jefferson again decried standing armies:

We must do as the Spaniards and English do. Keep them in peace by liberal and constant presents. Another powerful motive is that in this way we may leave no pretext for raising or continuing an army. Every rag of an Indian depredation will, otherwise, serve as a ground to raise troops with those who think a standing army and a public debt necessary for the happiness of the United States, and we shall never be permitted to get rid of either.


Jefferson was not alone in his views on the evils of war. Most of the Founding Fathers thought likewise:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.” ~ James Madison “There was never a good war or a bad peace.” ~ Benjamin Franklin “Preparation for war is a constant stimulus to suspicion and ill will.” ~ James Monroe “While there are knaves and fools in the world, there will be wars in it.” ~ John Jay “The fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace.” ~ Alexander Hamilton “My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth.” ~ George Washington

But today, instead of sages like Madison, Franklin, Monroe, Jay, Hamilton, Washington, and Jefferson, we have warmongers like Bush, Cheney, Libby, Feith, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Abrams. And instead of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the American public is fed a steady diet of David Frum, William Kristol, Sean Hannity, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, Fox News, and the War Street Journal.

Jefferson was not perfect, and he was at times inconsistent, but overall his principles were sound. The senseless waste of American lives in Bush’s Iraq fiasco could have been avoided if Jefferson’s aversion to war had been followed instead of forsaken, as have the other sound principles of the Founders.

[These quotations from Jefferson have been taken from a variety of sources. Most are from the now out-of-print volume, The Complete Jefferson, edited and assembled by Saul K. Padover. However, other similar volumes of Jefferson’s writings are available, and much is now available online, such as this collection of Jefferson’s letters.]