… our principle on that subject is that it is better for the public to procure at the common market whatever the market can supply: because there it is by competition kept up in it’s quality, and reduced to it’s minimum price. the public can buy there silver guns cheaper than they can make iron ones. as therefore private individuals can furnish cannon, shot &c. we shall never attempt to make them, nor consequently meddle with mines, forges, or any thing of that kind.
To Ferdinando Fairfax, September 13, 1804
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders acknowledge what government can’t do well.
Fairfax was a godson of George Washington’s and sometimes successful Virginia entrepreneur. He had offered to sell his ironworks to the government for the manufacture of their own armaments. Jefferson declined.
Why, when national defense was the government’s responsibility?
1. Jefferson’s policy was to buy such goods rather than make them.
2. Competition in the market kept the quality high and the price low. (It must have been with tongue-in-cheek that he said guns made privately from silver would be cheaper than those made from iron by the government!)
3. Not only would the government not manufacture its own armaments, they would not own any of the means to supply their manufacture, either.