Thoughts on War
Jefferson was a law student at the College of William & Mary when he stood at the doors of the House of Burgesses enraptured listening to Patrick Henry present resolves against the Stamp Act. When he himself was a burgess, he continued to promote the idea of revolution. Jefferson served as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia and President of the United States.
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Mr. Jefferson, what do you say to someone who's going to war?
The question stunned me. In more than ten years of portraying Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg, where our own Revolutionary War is referred to nearly every day, I had never been asked that question. The query came from a seven-year-old girl, perhaps possessing wisdom beyond her years.
As she gazed intently at me, I frantically tried to recall something of Jefferson's wisdom that would be appropriate. I remembered quickly that Jefferson, as the third president, was the first chief executive of the United States to send soldiers abroad to fight for our freedoms - a decision that was extremely difficult for him.
"I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind," Jefferson wrote. "The evils of war are great in their endurance and have a long reckoning for ages to come." With the dispatch of American troops to fight on foreign soil, Jefferson realized that defending free trade among nations was vital to the preservation of our own freedoms, newly won a generation before.
The path to war in 1801 was convenient. Not only was the cause morally and ethically right, it was popular. "Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute," was the battle cry in the streets of America and in its newspapers. No doubt remembering his own words, written on the eve of our revolution,"We are alarmed here with the apprehensions of war and sincerely anxious that it may be avoided, but not at the expense either of our faith or honor."Jefferson ordered the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps against the pirates of the Barbary Coast, the terrorists of his day, that had for centuries exacted monetary tribute - ransom - as they preyed on the shipping of the world's maritime nations.
Jefferson's war against the Barbary pirates was also a war between the United States and the Islamic kingdoms of North Africa, which sheltered the pirates, Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers. In answer to cries of injustice towards a people of differing religious opinion Jefferson had always said,"If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence."This history lesson, however, would be of little concern to the young girl standing before me intent upon an answer. Puzzled how I might answer her in clear and simple Jeffersonian terms, I considered,"If we are forced into war, 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."In these fleeting moments, I realized Mr. Jefferson must have faced a similar question, especially as he was often surrounded by children and grandchildren. Suddenly, history appeared lateral to me, and I answered her with my own thoughts and words as best I could imagine Mr. Jefferson responding.
"We should tell our soldiers going to war that we are with them in our hearts and in our minds, that we will not forget them, as we know they will not forget us. And we wish them to return to us safely as soon as possible."
Bill Barker interprets the character of Thomas Jefferson for Colonial Williamsburg.
Read more about Bill Barker on NPR's "War Diaries"
See Thomas Jefferson, Man of the Millennium