Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    Thomas Jefferson Autograph Letter Signed. One page, 7.5" x 5.25". [Washington], Sunday, January 3, 1808. Signed, " Th:J" as President at the top to " J.M.," Secretary of State James Madison. It reads in full: " I think we were under impressions last night which the papers did not justify. no single act was specified as a cause of complaint. no obstacle was stated to have been opposed to mr Rose's landing & coming on. what we did was well but I doubt the expediency of sending a vessel. it might shew too much empressement to gratify punctilios not explained to us. these thoughts are merely for consideration. Affectionate salutations."

    On June 22, 1807, the British frigate HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the USS Chesapeake after Commodore James Barron refused to surrender four seamen the British claimed to be deserters on board his ship. Three Americans on the Chesapeake were killed and 18 were wounded. On July 2, 1807, President Jefferson issued a proclamation, also signed by Secretary of State Madison, "requiring all armed vessels bearing commissions under the government of Great Britain, now within the harbors or waters of the United States, immediately and without any delay to depart from the same..." In spite of Jefferson's protest, in October, the British government announced it would continue to impress seamen on American ships whom they believed to be British. On December 22, 1807, President Jefferson signed "An act laying an embargo on all ships and vessels in the ports and harbors of the United States." It provided "that an embargo be and hereby is laid on all ships and vessels in the ports and places within the limits or jurisdiction of the United States, cleared or not cleared, bound to any foreign port or place," prohibiting U.S. ships from sailing to foreign ports. Jefferson hoped the embargo would get Great Britain and France, who were fighting each other at the time, to stop restricting American trade.

    Sir George Henry Rose was sent to the United States by British Prime Minister George Canning as a special envoy to treat concerning the Chesapeake- Leopard impressment case. It was thought that he would offer reparation for the Chesapeake affair. The day Jefferson wrote this letter to Secretary of State Madison, he also wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, an old friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. In part, "We are here in hourly expectation of seeing Mr. Rose, and of knowing what turn his mission is to give to our present differences. The embargo is salutary. It postpones war, gives time and the benefits of events which that may produce; particularly that of peace in Europe, which will postpone the causes of difference to the next war."

    The January 27, 1808 edition of the Hartford Courant published an extract from a letter dated Washington, January 14th: "Mr. Rose has, at last, actually arrived at this place. He and his secretary, Mr. Mansfield, came up the river Potomac, and landed last evening at the navy yard...There must have been a deep policy in our government to contrive it so that Mr. Rose, when he first landed, might be surprised and alarmed at the great naval force of this country." When Rose arrived in Washington on January 13th, he announced that the object of his mission was to settle the Chesapeake affair but that he could not even begin discussions until President Jefferson withdrew his July 2nd proclamation ordering British ships out of American waters. Secretary of State Madison told Rose that the withdrawal of Jefferson's order and Rose's disclosure of satisfactory reparations for the attack should occur on the same day. Canning, through Rose, demanded a formal disavowal of Commodore Barron's conduct in encouraging deserters from His Majesty's service and harboring them on board his ship. Madison said that the United States could not be expected "to make, as it were, an expiatory sacrifice to obtain redress, or beg for reparation." On March 17th, in a lengthy letter, Rose declared "my mission is terminated" and returned to England.

    On March 23, 1808, Jefferson wrote Attorney General Levi Lincoln that "The termination of Mr. Rose's mission, re infecta [the matter being not completed], put it in my power to communicate to Congress yesterday, everything respecting our relations with England and France." In that message to both Houses of Congress, the President wrote that "in our present critical situation, when we find that no conduct on our part, however impartial and friendly, has been sufficient to insure from either belligerent a just respect for our rights, I am desirous that nothing shall be omitted on my part which may add to your information on this subject, or contribute to the correctness of the views which should be formed..." He also told his Attorney General, who opposed the embargo, that "the alternative was between that and war, and in fact, it is the last card we have to play, short of war. But if peace does not take place in Europe, and if France and England will not consent to withdraw the operation of their decrees and orders from us, when Congress shall meet in December, they will have to consider at what point of time the embargo, continued, becomes a greater evil than war." The Embargo Act hurt the American economy and on March 1, 1809, Congress repealed it and passed the Non-Intercourse Act which closed U.S. ports only to Great Britain and France.

    Jefferson's letter to Madison was penned after they had met the night before discussing the impending arrival of Sir George Rose. Jefferson's mention of " sending a vessel" may refer to an American ship meeting Rose's ship, welcoming him aboard, and sailing up the Potomac to Washington. There had been reports in the papers that proved to be untrue that Rose's ship, HMS Statira, had been captured by the French ship Le Patriot out of Hampton Roads, so the President may have been thinking of Rose's safety. Jefferson doesn't believe that there were any obstacles against " Mr. Rose's landing & coming on," but it may show too much " empressement [cordiality] to gratify punctilios [precise observance of formalities] not explained to us." It is obvious from this letter that Jefferson is eagerly anticipating Rose's arrival and wants to make sure that proper etiquette is followed. As reported above, an American ship did not meet the frigate Statira which sailed into the Washington navy yard passing ships of the American Navy. Jefferson and his successor Madison tried vainly to avoid war. The Chesapeake incident is regarded by most historians as one of the causes of the War of 1812, arousing anti-British sentiment in the United States.

    The letter has been affixed to a 19.75" x 9" tan sheet, flanked on the left and right with oval engraved portraits of Madison and Jefferson. It is framed under glass to 21.5" x 10.5". Not examined outside of the frame.

    Condition: There is a 1" triangular hole in the blank left margin of the letter. The signature on verso of Jefferson's Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith ("R. Smith") lightly shows through. The letter bears light folds with faint tanning from prior framing.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    May, 2021
    19th Wednesday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 5
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 670

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $300,000 (minimum $49), plus 20% of any amount between $300,000 and $3,000,000, plus 12.5% of any amount over $3,000,000 per lot.

    Sold on May 19, 2021 for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)
    Track Item

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Only 37 days left to consign to the 2021 September 26 Autumn Luxury Accessories Signature Auction!

    Learn about consigning with us

    Heritage has gone above and beyond my expectations in handling all of my transactions in a thoroughly professional manner. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone worldwide for the exemplary auction and valuation services they provide.
    Richard H.,
    Corsicana, TX
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search