… I take the liberty of urging on you the importance and indispensible necessity of vigorous exertions … [to] render the militia a sure and permanent bulwark of national defence.
None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army. to keep ours armed and disciplined, is therefore at all times important. but especially so at a moment when rights the most essential to our welfare have been violated …
… that I may have a full and correct view of the resources of our country in all it’s different parts, … [furnish me with a report of the] militia, & of the arms & accoutrements of your state, and of the several counties, or other geographical divisions of it.
Circular to the Governors of the States, February 25, 1803
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A ready defense of the nation is a leader’s first responsibility.
The U.S. had no standing army, and the President didn’t want one, for two reasons. First was the cost to maintain it. Second, an army, created to fight, would want to fight and might cause provocations for that reason alone. Far better was a well-armed and trained militia, private citizens ready to provide a first line of defense. If the militia proved inadequate, their existence would provide time to raise a standing army.
Militias were the responsibility of the states. Jefferson wrote to the Governors, reinforcing their role in providing for a militia that was “armed and disciplined.” He asked each Governor to report to him on the men and arms available from each state, county and territory.
The particular violation referenced by Jefferson was at New Orleans, where a Spanish agent had suspended America’s treaty-guaranteed right of free shipping through that essential river port.