Our busy scene is now approaching. the quiet tract into which we are endeavoring to get, neither meddling with the affairs of other nations, nor with those of our fellow citizens, but letting them go on in their own way, will shew itself in the statement of our affairs to Congress. we have almost nothing to propose to them but ‘to let things alone.’
To Joseph Priestley, November 29, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know the best course of action can be no action at all.
Priestley (1733-1804) was a renowned English-born scientist, philosopher and theologian. He was one of Jefferson’s closest confidantes.
The “busy scene” in Jefferson’s letter was the convening of the Congress for their legislative session. The “statement of our affairs” was what we now call the annual State of the Union Address. The “quiet tract” was the ongoing adoption of the republican vision for a smaller, frugal, hands-off national government focused on two priorities:
1. Staying out of other nations’ business, and
2. Staying out of the lives of its citizens.
So successful had they been toward these ends, he could propose little to Congress other than to do nothing at all!
Further on in this letter, Jefferson wrote “the only speck in our horizon which can threaten anything” was the pending transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. He was already addressing that issue in diplomacy, and its successful resolution the next year would change the course of America’s future.