Thomas Jefferson's Letters on Foreign Affairs
Considering the mess the U.S. government has gotten into with Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. it would be a good idea to head one of America's founders.
----- To J. Madison, 1797
In THE whole animal kingdom I recollect no family but man,
steadily and systematically employed in the destruction of itself. Nor does
what is called civilization produce any other effect than to teach him to
pursue the principle of the bellum omnium in omnia on a greater
scale, and instead of the little contest between tribe and tribe, to
comprehend all the quarters of the earth in the same work of destruction.
If to this we add, that as to other animals, the lions and tigers are mere lambs compared with man as a destroyer, we must conclude that nature has been able to find in man alone a sufficient barrier against the too great multiplication of other animals and of man himself an equilibrating power against the fecundity of generation.
----- To John Adams, 1822
To turn to the news of the day, it seems that the Cannibals
of Europe are going to eating one another again. A war between Russia and
Turkey is like the battle of the kite and snake. Whichever destroys the
other, leaves a destroyer the less for the world.
This pugnacious humor of mankind seems to be the law of his nature, one of the obstacles to too great multiplication provided in the mechanism of the Universe. The cocks of the henyard kill one another up. Bears, do the same.
And the horse, in his wild state, kills all the young males, until worn down with age and war, some vigorous youth kills him, and takes to himself the Harem of females. I hope we shall prove how much happier for man the Quaker policy is, and that the life of the feeder, is better than that of the fighter; and it is some consolation that the desolation, by these maniacs of one part of the earth is the means of improving it in other parts. Let the latter be our office, and let us milk the cow, while the Russian holds her by the horns, and the Turk by the tail.
----- To Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1803
Tremendous times in Europe! How mighty this battle of lions and tigers! With what sensations should the common herd of cattle look on it? With no partialities, certainly. If they can so far worry one another as to destroy their power for tyrannizing, the one over the earth, the other the waters, the world may perhaps enjoy peace, till they recruit again.
----- To Colonel Duane, 1813
It is true that I am tired of practical politics, and
happier while reading the history of ancient than of modern times. The total
banishment of all moral principle from the code which governs the
intercourse of nations, the melancholy reflection that after the mean,
wicked and cowardly cunning of the cabinets of the age of Machiavel had
given place to the integrity and good faith which dignified the succeeding
one of a Chatham and Turgot, that this is to be swept away again by the
daring profligacy and avowed destitution of all moral principle . . . ,
sickens my soul unto death.
I turn from the contemplation with loathing, and take refuge in the histories of other times, where, if they also furnished their Tarquins, their Catalines and Caligulas, their stories are handed to us under the brand of a Livy, a Sallust and a Tacitus, and we are comforted with the reflection that the condemnation of all succeeding generations has confirmed the censures of the historian, and consigned their memories to everlasting infamy, a solace we cannot have with the Georges and Napoleons but by anticipation.
----- To the Ketocton Baptist Association, 1808
The moral principles and conventional usages which have heretofore been the bond of civilized nations . . . have now given way to force, the law of Barbarians, and the nineteenth century dawns with the Vandalism of the fifth,
----- To - (?), 1813: N. Y. Pub. Lib., MS, IV, 191-192
Our lot happens to have been cast in an age when two of the most powerful nations of the world, abusing their force and to whom circumstances have given a temporary superiority over others, the one by land, the other by sea, throwing off all the bonds [and] restraints of morality and all regard to pride of national character, forgetting the mutability of fortune and the inevitable doom which the laws of nature pronounce against departures from justice, individual or national - have dared to treat her reclamations with derision and to substitute force instead of reason as the umpire of nations, degrading themselves thus from the character of lawful societies into lawless bands of robbers and pirates., they are ravaging [and] abusing their brief ascendancy by desolating the world with blood and rapine. Against such banditti, war had become preferable [and] less ruinous than peace, for their peace was a war on one side only.
----- To J. Maury, 1812
We consider the overwhelming power of England on the ocean,
and of France on the land, as destructive of the prosperity and happiness of
the world, and wish both to be reduced only to the necessity of observing
We believe no more in Bonaparte's fighting merely for the liberty of the seas, than in Great Britain's fighting for the liberties of mankind. The object of both is the same, to draw to themselves the power, the wealth and the resources of other nations.
----- To John Adams, 1821
I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are
on steady advance. We have seen, indeed, once within the records of history,
a complete eclipse of the human mind continuing for centuries. And this,
too, by swarms of the same northern barbarians, conquering and taking
possession of the countries and governments of the civilized world.
Should this be again attempted, should the same northern hordes, allured again by the corn, wine, and oil of the south, be able to settle their swarms in the countries of their growth, the art of printing alone, and the vast dissemination of books, will maintain the mind where it is, and raise the conquering ruffians to the level of the conquered, instead of degrading these to that of their conquerors.
And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.
In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.
----- Notes on Virginia, Query 22
Never was so much false arithmetic employed on any subject, as that which has been employed to persuade nations that it is their interest to go to war. Were the money which it has cost to gain, at the close of a long war, a little town, or a little territory, the right to cut wood here, or to catch fish there, expended in improving what they already possess, in making roads, opening rivers, building ports, improving the arts, and finding employment for their idle poor, it would render them much stronger, much wealthier and happier. This I hope will be our wisdom.
And, perhaps, to remove as much as possible the occasions
of making war, it might be better for us to abandon the ocean altogether,
that being the element whereon we shall be principally exposed to jostle
with other nations; to leave to others to bring what we shall want, and to
carry what we can spare.
This would make us invulnerable to Europe, by offering none of our property to their prize, and would turn all our citizens to the cultivation of the earth; and, I repeat it again, cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.
It might be time enough to seek employment for them at sea, when the land no longer offers it. But the actual habits of our countrymen attach them to commerce. They will exercise it for themselves.
Wars then must sometimes be our lot; and all the wise can do, will be to avoid that half of them which would be produced by our own follies and our own acts of injustice; and to make for the other half the best preparations we can.
----- To Pendleton, 1799
What a glorious exchange would it be could we persuade our navigating fellow citizens to embark their capital in the internal commerce of our country, exclude foreigners from that and let them take the carrying trade in exchange: abolish the diplomatic establishments and never suffer an armed vessel of any nation to enter our ports.
----- To T. Coxe, 1794
I love peace, and I am anxious that we should give the
world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of
punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the
punisher as to the sufferer.
I love, therefore [the] proposition of cutting off all communications with the nation [England] which has conducted itself so atrociously. This, you will say, may bring on war. If it does, we will meet it like men; but it may not bring on war, and then the experiment will have been a happy one.
----- To E. Rutledge, 1797
What the neutral nations think of us now, I know not; but
we are low indeed with the belligerents. Their kicks and cuffs prove their
contempt. If we weather the present storm, I hope we shall avail ourselves
of the calm of peace, to place our foreign connections under a new and
We must make the interest of every nation stand surety for their justice, and their own loss to follow injury to us, as effect follows its cause. As to everything except commerce, we ought to divorce ourselves from them all.
But this system would require time, temper, wisdom, and occasional sacrifice of interest; and how far all of these will be ours, our children may see, but we shall not.
----- To Wm. Short, 1801
We have a perfect horror at everything like connecting
ourselves with the politics of Europe. It would indeed be advantageous to us
to have neutral rights established on a broad ground; but no dependence can
be placed in any European coalition for that.
They have so many other bye-interests of greater weight, that some one or other will always be bought off. To be entangled with them would be a much greater evil than a temporary acquiescence in the false principles which have prevailed.
----- Third Annual Message, October 17, 1803
Separated by a wide ocean from the nations of Europe, and
from the political interests which entangle them together, with productions
and wants which render our commerce and friendship useful to them and theirs
to us, it cannot be the interest of any to assail us, nor ours to disturb
We should be most unwise, indeed, were we to cast away the singular blessings of the position in which nature has placed us, the opportunity she has endowed us with of pursuing, at a distance from foreign contentions, the paths of industry, peace, and happiness;
of cultivating general friendship, and of bringing collisions of interest to the umpirage of reason rather than of force. How desirable then must it be, in a government like ours, to see its citizens adopt individually the views, the interests, and the conduct which their country should pursue, divesting themselves of those passions and partialities which tend to lessen useful friendships, and to embarrass and embroil us in the calamitous scenes of Europe.
----- Third Annual Message, October 17, 1803
In the course of this conflict, let it be our endeavor, as
it is our interest and desire, to cultivate the friendship of the
belligerent nations by every act of justice and of incessant kindness; to
receive their armed vessels with hospitality from the distresses of the sea,
but to administer the means of annoyance to none; to establish in our
harbors such a police as may maintain law and order;
to restrain our citizens from embarking individually in a war in which their country takes no part; to punish severely those persons, citizen or alien, who shall usurp the cover of our flag for vessels not entitled to it, infecting thereby with suspicion those of real Americans, and committing us into controversies for the redress of wrongs not our own;
to exact from every nation the observance, toward our vessels and citizens, of those principles and practices of a just nation, and maintain that of an independent one, preferring every consequence to insult and habitual wrong.
----- To Tammany Society, 1808
There can be no question, in a mind truly American whether it is best to send our citizens and property into certain captivity, and then wage war for their recovery, or to keep them at home, and to turn seriously to that policy which plants the manufacturer and the husbandman side by side, and establishes at the door of every one that exchange of mutual labors and comforts, which we have hitherto sought in distant regions, and under perpetual risk of broils with them.
----- To Bloodgood and Hammond, 1809
A world in arms and trampling on all those moral principles
which have heretofore been deemed sacred in the intercourse between nations,
could not suffer us to remain insensible of all agitation.
During such a course of lawless violence, it was certainly wise to withdraw ourselves from all intercourse with the belligerent nations, to avoid the desolating calamities inseparable from war, its pernicious effects on manners and morals, and the dangers it threatened to free governments; and to cultivate our own resources until our natural and progressive growth should leave us nothing to fear from foreign enterprise.
----- To the Earl of Buchan, 1803
I bless the Almighty Being, who, in gathering together the
waters under the heavens into one place, divided the dry land of your
hemisphere from the dry lands of ours and said, at least be there peace. I
hope that peace and amity with all nations will long be the character of our
land, and that its prosperity under the Charter will react on the mind of
Europe, and profit her by the example.
My hope of preserving peace for our country is not founded in the greater principles of non-resistance under every wrong, but in the belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will procure justice and friendship from others.
----- To the Citizens of Washington, March 4, 1809
The station which we occupy among the nations of the earth
is honorable, but awful. Trusted with the destinies of this solitary
republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole
depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it
is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the
earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence. All mankind
ought then, with us, to rejoice in its prosperous, and sympathize in its
adverse fortunes, as involving everything dear to man.
And to what sacrifices of interest, or convenience, ought not these considerations to animate us? To what compromises of opinion and inclination, to maintain harmony and union among ourselves, and to preserve from all danger this hallowed ark of human hope and happiness.
----- To the New York State Legislature, 1809
Sole depositories of the remains of human liberty, our duty
to ourselves, to posterity, and to mankind, call on us by every motive which
is sacred or honorable, to watch over the safety of our beloved country
during the troubles which agitate and convulse the residue of the world, and
to sacrifice to that all personal and local considerations.
While the boasted energies of monarchy have yielded to easy conquest . . . , should our fabric of freedom suffer no more than the slight agitations we have experienced, it will be an useful lesson to the friends as well as the enemies of self-government.
-To Dr. Jones, 1810
Our difficulties are indeed great, if we consider ourselves
alone. But when viewed in comparison to those of Europe, they are the joys
of Paradise. In the eternal revolution of ages, the destinies have placed
our portion of existence amidst such scenes of tumult and outrage, as no
other period, within our knowledge, has presented. Every government but one
on the continent of Europe, demolished, a conqueror roaming over the earth
with havoc and destruction, a pirate spreading misery and ruin over the face
of the ocean. Indeed . . . , ours is a bed of roses.
And the system of government which shall keep us afloat amidst the wreck of the world, will be immortalized in history. We have, to be sure, our petty squabbles and heart burnings, and we have something of the blue devils at times, as to these raw heads and bloody bones who are eating up other nations.
But happily for us, the Mammoth cannot swim, nor the Leviathan move on dry land; and if we will keep out of their way, they cannot get at us. If, indeed, we choose to place ourselves within the scope of their tether, a gripe of the paw, or flounce of the tail, may be our fortune.
----- To Adams, 1812
And I do believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful; wise and happy, beyond what has yet been seen by men. As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, and the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine and destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country to be ignorant, honest and estimable, as our neighboring savages are.
----- To Ticknor, 1816 N. Y. Pub. Lib., MS, IV, 338
I expect that Europe will again be in a state of general conflagration. What a divine contrast is the calm of our condition to the Volcanic state of that. How do our little party bickerings and squabbles shrink to nothing compared with the fire and sword and havoc of that Arena of gladiators.
- To Eppes, 1811
I am so far . . . from believing that our reputation will
be tarnished by our not having mixed in the mad contests of the rest of the
world that, setting aside the ravings of pepper-pot politicians, of whom
there are enough in every age and country, I believe it will place us high
in the scale of wisdom, to have preserved our country tranquil and
prosperous during a contest which prostrated the honor, power, independence,
laws and property of every country on the other side of the Atlantic.
Which of them have better preserved their honors Has Spain, has Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Prussia, Austria, the other German powers, Sweden, Denmark, or even Russia?
And would we accept of the infamy of France or England in exchange for our honest reputation, or of the result of their enormities, despotism to the one, and bankruptcy and prostration to the other, in exchange for the prosperity, the freedom and independence which we have preserved safely through the wreck?
----- To Colonel Wm. Duane, 1811
During the bellum omnium in omnia of Europe, [our
country] will require the union of all its friends to resist its enemies
within and without . . . The last hope of human liberty in this world rests
on us. We ought, for so dear a state, to sacrifice every attachment and
Leave the president free to choose his own coadjutors, to pursue his own measures, and support him and them, even if we think we are wiser than they, honester than they are, or possessing more enlarged information of the state of things.
If we move in mass, be it ever so circuitously, we shall attain our object; but if we break into squads, every one pursuing the path he thinks most direct, we become an easy conquest to those who can now barely hold us in check.
I repeat again, that we ought not to schismatize on either
men or measures. Principles alone can justify that. If we find our government in all its branches rushing
headlong, like our predecessors, into the arms of monarchy, if we find them
violating our dearest rights, the trial by jury, the freedom of the press,
the freedom of opinion, civil or religious, or opening on our peace of mind
or personal safety the sluices of terrorism, if we see them raising standing
armies, when the absence of all other danger points to these as the sole
objects on which they are to be employed, then indeed let us withdraw and
call the nation to its tents.
But while our functionaries are wise, and honest, and vigilant, let us move compactly under their guidance, and we have nothing to fear. Things may here and there go a little wrong. It is not in their power to prevent it. But all will be right in the end, though not perhaps by the shortest means.
----- To Kosciuszko, 1811
But when we see two antagonists contending ad
internecionea, so eager for mutual destruction as to disregard all
means, to deal their blows in every direction regardless on whom they may
fall, prudent bystanders, whom some of them may wound, instead of thinking
it cause to join in the maniac contest, get out of the way as well as they
can, and leave the cannibals to mutual ravin.
It would have been perfect Quixotism in us to have encountered these Bedlamites, to have undertaken the redress of all wrongs against a world avowedly rejecting all regard to right. We have, therefore, remained in peace, suffering frequent injuries, but, on the.whole, multiplying, improving, prospering beyond all example. It is evident to all, that in spite of great losses much greater gains have ensued.
When these gladiators shall have worried each other into ruin or reason, instead of lying among the dead on the bloody arena, we shall have acquired a growth and strength which will place us hors d'insulte. Peace then has been our principle, peace is our interest, and peace has saved the world this only plant of free and rational government now existing on it.
----- To President Monroe, 1823
Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to
entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer
Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs. America, North and South,
has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her
She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicil of despotism, our endeavor should surely be, to make our hemisphere that of freedom.
----- To President Monroe, 1823
I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States,
never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political
interests are entirely distinct from ours.
Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war.
All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people. On our part, never had a people so favorable a chance of trying the opposite system, of peace and fraternity with mankind, and the direction of all our means and faculties to the purposes of improvement instead of destruction.
With Europe we have few occasions of collision and these, with a little prudence and forbearance, may be generally accommodated. Of the brethren of our own hemisphere, none are yet, or for an age to come will be, in a shape, condition, or disposition to war against us. And the foothold which the nations of Europe had in either America, is slipping from under them, so that we shall soon be rid of their neighborhood.
ON THE JUDICIARY
----- To T. Ritchie, 1820
The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of
sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the
foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our constitution
from a coordination of a general and special government to a general and
supreme one alone. This will lay all things at their feet . . .
We shall see if they are bold enough to take the daring stride their five lawyers have lately taken. If they do, then . . . I will say, that "against this every man should raise his voice," and more, should uplift his arm . . .
Having found, from experience that impeachment is an
impracticable thing, a mere scarecrow, they consider themselves secure for
life; they sculk from responsibility to public opinion . . .
An opinion is huddled up in conclave, perhaps by a majority of one, delivered as if unanimous, and with the silent acquiescence of lazy or timid associates, by a crafty chief judge, who sophisticates the law to his mind, by the turn of his own reasoning . . .
----- To Jarvis, 1820
To consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all
constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one
which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as
honest as other men, and not more so.
They have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. Their maxim is "boni judicis est ainpliare jurisdictionem," and their power the more dangerous as they are in once for life . . . The constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots.
----- To C. Hammond, 1821
It has long, however, been my opinion, and I have never
shrunk from its expression (although I do not choose to put it into a
newspaper, nor, like a Priam in armor, offer myself its champion), that the
germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the
federal judiciary; an irresponsible body (for impeachment is scarcely a
scarecrow) working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today
and little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the
field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the
government of all be consolidated into one.
To this I am opposed; because, when all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government or another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.
It will be as in Europe, where every man must be either pike or gudgeon, hammer or anvil. Our functionaries and theirs are wares from the same workshop; made of the same materials, and by the same hand.
If the States look with apathy on this silent descent of their government into the gulf which is to swallow all, we have only to weep over the human character formed uncontrollable but by a rod of iron, and the blasphemers of man, as incapable of self-government, become his true historians.
----- To Pleasants, 1821
Another most condemnable practice of the Supreme Court to
be corrected is that of cooking up a decision in caucus and delivering it by
one of their members as the opinion of the court, without the possibility of
our knowing how many, who, and for what reasons each member concurred.
This completely defeats the possibility of impeachment by smothering evidence. A regard for character in each being now the only hold we can have of them, we should hold fast to it.
They would, were they to give their opinions seriatim and publicly, endeavor to justify themselves to the world by explaining the reasons which led to their opinion.
----- To Pleasants, 1821
[For the] difficult task in curbing the Judiciary in their enterprises on the Constitution . . . the best [remedy] I can devise would be to give future ommissions to judges for six years [the Senatorial term] with a re-appointmentability by the president with the approbation of both houses. If this would not be independence enough, I know not what would be . . .
The Judiciary perversions of the Constitution will forever
be protected under the pretext of errors of judgment, which by principle are
exempt from punishment.
Impeachment therefore is a bugbear which they fear not at all. But they would be under some awe of the canvas of their conduct which would be open to both houses regularly every sixth year. It is a misnomer to call a government republican, in which a branch of the supreme power is independent of the nation.
----- To W. T. Barry, 1822
If ever this vast country is brought under a single
government, it will be one of the most extensive corruption, indifferent and
incapable of a wholesome care over so wide a spread of surface. This will
not be borne, and you will have to choose between reformation and
If I know the spirit of this country, the one or the other is inevitable. Before the canker is become inveterate, before its venom has reached so much of the body politic as to get beyond control, remedy should be applied. Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years, and renewable by the President and Senate.
This will bring their conduct, at regular periods, under revision and probation, and may keep them in equipose between the general and special governments. We have erred in this point, by copying England, where certainly it is a good thing to have the judges independent of the King.
But we have omitted to copy their caution also, which makes a judge removable on the address of both legislative Houses. That there should be public functionaries independent of the nation, whatever may be their demerit, is a solecism in a republic, of the first order of absurdity and inconsistency.
----- To Governor John Langdon, March 5, 1810
And what is to be our security, that when embarked for her
in war, she will not make a separate peace, and leave us in the lurch? Her
good faith! The faith of a nation of merchants! The Punica fides of modern
Carthage! Of a nation who never a chapter of morality into her political
code! And is now boldly avowing, that whatever power can make hers, is
hers of right. Money, and not morality, is the principle of commerce and
But, in addition to this, the nature of the English [U.S.] government forbids, of itself, reliance on her engagements; and it is well known she has been the least faithful to her alliances of any nation of Europe, since the period of her history wherein she has been distinguished for her commerce and corruption, that is to say, under the houses of Stuart and Brunswick [Bush and Clinton].
To Portugal [Israel] alone she has steadily adhered, because, by her Methuin treaty she had made it a colony, and one of the most valuable to her.
It may be asked, what, in the nature of her government,
unfits England [the U.S.] for the observation of moral duties? In the first
place, her King [President] is a cypher; his only function being to name the
oligarchy which is to govern her.
The parliament [Congress] is, by corruption, the mere instrument of the will of the administration. The real power and property in the government is in the great aristocratical families of the nation.
The nest of office being too small for all of them to cuddle into at once, the contest is eternal, which shall crowd the other out. For this purpose, they are divided into two parties, the Ins and the Outs, so equal in weight that a small matter turns the balance. To keep themselves in, when they are in, every stratagem must be practiced, every artifice used which may flatter the pride, the passions or power of the nation.
Justice, honor, faith, must yield to the necessity of keeping themselves in place. The question whether a measure is moral, is never asked; but whether it will nourish the avarice of their merchants, or the piratical spirit of their navy [armed forces], or produce any other effect which may strengthen them in their places.
As to engagements, however positive, entered into by the predecessors of the Ins, why, they were their enemies; they did every thing which was wrong; and to reverse every thing they did, must, therefore, be right.
This is the true character of the English [U.S.] government in practice, however different its theory; and it presents the singular phenomenon of a nation, the individuals of which are as faithful to their private engagements and duties, as honorable, as worthy, as those of any nation on earth, and whose government is yet the most unprincipled at this day known.
In an absolute government there can be no such equiponderant parties. The despot is the government. His power suppressing all opposition, maintains his ministers firm in their places. What he has contracted, therefore, through them, he has the power to observe with good faith; and he identifies his own honor and faith with that of his nation.
[I have added the words in brackets to show the reader how much that Jefferson wrote in 1810 is as applicable today in the year 2000.]
The writer of the above is unknown, but the facts check out. If you are author, please let me know so I can credit you.
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