Item of the Day: Noah Webster’s Letter to Peter Porcupine (1797)




Of New-York, March 21, 1797.


In a late paper, we inserted sentiments of this kind, that the putting up in the Coffee House, a card, on which was painted the English flag, was a low pitiful business, equalled only by the meanness of putting up a French flag, and that it is servile to be bandied about between the flags of different foreign nations.  We ought to unite under our own flag and learn to be a nation.

Peter Porcupine has copied the paragraph with disapprobation, and says it contains more of vulgar prejudice, and mistake, than of justice or good policy.  He observes that it is the “quo animo,” the intention of the act that stamps its character.  He would have no foreign flag hoisted, as a rallying point for malcontents against their own government; but to unite the American Eagle with the British Lion against an ambitious enemy, he thinks, would be an act that we need not be ashamed of.  He then speaks of an alliance of that kind, as honourable and advantageous to both parties.

No comment will be made on the insinuation of “Vulgar Prejudice,” against the Editor of the Minerva.  When Peter becomes acquainted with the editor’s real character, he will learn, that in a combat of that kind, he himself must certainly be the loser.

But we contest Peter’s principles.  It was strongly suspected many months ago, that his principles are not very friendly to the independence of America, and still less so, to the form of our government.  This suspicion has been greatly increased by the manner in which his gazette has been conducted.  His retailing abuse against la Fayette, whose sufferings (even suppose him to have been in fault, which is doubtful or not admitted) are far too severe, and a call for the sympathy of all mankind, denotes a man callous to the miseries of his species, and extremely disrespectful to the opinions of the Americans, who entertain friendship and gratitude for la Fayette.  We observe also whole columns of some of the first numbers of Peter’s gazette, filled with “apologies for the old government of France,” that is, for the feudal system, though in a relaxed state, and for as corrupt a system of despotism as Europe ever witnessed.

The success of Peter’s pen, in attacking the democratic factions of our country, has perfectly intoxicated him; and he mistakes the sense of America extremely, when he supposes the danger we have escaped of being prostrated at the feet of France, will urge us to lay our country at the feet of Great-Britain.

No, Peter; your abusing the men who fought for our Independence, and your recommending the old Government of France, are not the means by which your popularity is to be maintained.  The old government of France was not so bad, as the Jacobin government, it is true; but there is a government different from both, which la Fayette fought, and which the people of this country will rejoice to see introduced, that is, a Free Government.

As to an alliance with Great-Britain, we want none except what is dictated by commercial views.  Here our interest, calls for mutual aid and protection  So far as Great Britain will protect our trade, for her own sake, we shall gladly receive it, and no farther.

We ask no favours of Great-Britain, nor of any other nation; for this would lay the foundation for more claims of gratitude, with which we have been outrageously tormented by the French, and their hirelings.  the United States and Great Britain are allied by interest.  Setting aside sameness of language, habits and private connections, no two countries are so closely united by commercial advantages.  Nor can this union of interest, for a long time to come, have a competitor.  It is as much for Great-Britain’s interest (not to say more) to protect our vessels, as it is ours to have them protected.  So far an alliance will arise out of necessity and convenience, which will require very little modification by express agreements.  As to any thing like a general treaty, offensive and defensive, God forbid.  Sooner may the United States be doomed to encounter another eight years for Independence, than hold the blessing at the mercy of any foreign nation.

No, Peter; the man who writes this, once voluntarily bore arms to defend Independence, in pursuance of the same principles, he first proposed publicly the plan of a National Constitution, persevering in the same principles, he assailed the monster, FACTION, the moment it appeared, in the insidious form of popular clubs: and from that moment to this, he has never ceased to expose the artifices of the French agents to lay this country at the feet of France.  With the same determined zeal and firmness, Peter, he now openly declares war against the man who dares to vilify the defenders of American Independence, or to propose an alliance that would commit that independence to the power of a foreign state, or to the fate of European contests.

Americans desire peace, and rejoice that the flags of all nations stream in their harbours.  But the man who unites a foreign flag with that of his own country, on the territory of the United States, without an order of government, is a factious man, and has not the honour of his country at heart.  This little emblem of national honour ought no more to be the signal for mobs and for violence in a neutral country.

Such, Peter, is my political creed — I know no party, but that of MY COUNTRY.  My country is INDEPENDENT: it is for our interest, the interest of Great Britain, and of all Europe, that it should be so; and the man who seeks to tack it on any foreign country, to involve it in European broils, or make its independence the sport of European policy, is conceived to be an ENEMY.  As such, his intrigues will be exposed and his influence resisted, by all those decent and legal means, that distinguish the gentleman and the good citizen.

 P.S.  If Peter Porcupine’s views are mistaken, it belongs to him to remove the impressions which his writings made on the genuine friends of this country.




Philadelphia, 25th March, 1797.

To Mr. Noah Webster, of New-York.


You tell me and the public that you, “with determined zeal and firmness now openly declare war against me;” and that  “I must certainly be the loser.”  Softly, ‘Squire Webster:  it is not so certain, perhaps, as you may imagine. If you had remembered the fable of the man who sold the lion’s skin, and was afterwards killed in hunting him, you would not have cried victoria! before you had given your antagonist time to return your fire.

This, Sir, I desire you to look upon as a counter-declaration.; as a preparative for repulsing the unprovoked attack.  Your long, familiar, and modest address should have been answered this day (notwithstanding the certainty of my being the loser) did not the very extraordinary remarks it contains call for delay, in order to afford time for a full and fair discussion of a subject, of much greater importance than the “political creed” of a newsmonger.  In the mean time, Sir, be not too confident of victory.  “Atchieve me first, good ‘Squire, and then fell my bones.”

For your attachment to the government under which we live and prosper, and for the services (however trifling) you have rendered it, accept the respects of

Your humble servant,



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Filed under 1790's, France, Great Britain, Political Pamphlets, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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