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In May, 1811, there occurred one of those accidents which happen on purpose, and often serve as a relief when the public temper is in an exasperated and almost dangerous condition. This was the fight between the American frigate President, of forty-four guns, and the English sloop-of-war Little Belt, of eighteen guns. This vessel belonged to the British squadron which was ordered to the American coast to break up the trade from the United States to France; and the President was one of the few ships the government had for the protection of its commerce. The ships met a few miles south of Sandy Hook, chased each other in turn, then fired into each other without any reasonable pretext for the first shot, which each accused the other of having fired. The loss on board the English ship, in an encounter which lasted only a few minutes, was over thirty in killed and wounded, while only a single man was slightly wounded on board the President. It was, as Mr. Madison said, an "occurrence not unlikely to bring on repetitions," and that these would "probably end in an open rupture or a better understanding,[291] as the calculations of the British government may prompt or dissuade from war." This certainly was obvious enough; though it would be a great deal easier for England to bring on a war than to avert it, in the angry mood in which the majority of the Democratic party then was. But Mr. Madison preserved his equanimity. Considering his old proclivity for France, and his old dislike of England, his impartiality between them is rather remarkable. But his aim was still to keep the peace while he abated nothing of the well-founded complaints he had against both powers. When a new Congress assembled in the autumn he was careful to point out in his message the delinquencies of France as well as the offenses of England. He insisted that while England should have acknowledged the Berlin and Milan decrees to be revoked and have acted accordingly, France showed no disposition to repair the many wrongs she had inflicted upon American merchants, and had lately imposed such "rigorous and unexpected restrictions" upon commerce that it would be necessary, unless they were speedily discontinued, to meet them by "corresponding restrictions on importations from France."

This tone is even more pronounced in his letters for some following months. If anything, it is France rather than England that seems to be looked upon as the chief offender, with whom there was the greater danger of armed collision. A fortnight after Congress had assembled he wrote to[292] Barlow, the new minister to France, that though justified in assuming the French decrees to be so far withdrawn that a withdrawal of the British orders might be looked for, "yet the manner in which the French government has managed the repeal of the decrees, and evaded a correction of other outrages, has mingled with the conciliatory tendency of the repeal as much of irritation and disgust as possible." "In fact," he adds, "without a systematic change from an appearance of crafty contrivance and insatiate cupidity, for an open, manly, and upright dealing with a nation whose example demands it, it is impossible that good-will can exist; and that the ill-will which her policy aims at directing against her enemy should not, by her folly and iniquity, be drawn off against herself." French depredations upon American commerce in the Baltic were "kindling a fresh flame here," and, if they were not stopped, "hostile collisions will as readily take place with one nation as the other;" nor would there be any hesitation in sending American frigates to that sea, "with orders to suppress by force the French and Danish depredations," were it not for the "danger of rencounters with British ships of superior force in that quarter."

By this time, however, Congress, under the lead of younger, vigorous men—chief among them Clay and Calhoun—panting for leadership and distinction, was beginning its clamor for war with England. How much respect had Madison for[293] this movement, and how much faith in it? A letter to Jefferson of February 7 answers both questions. Were he not evidently amused, he would seem to be contemptuous. "To enable the Executive to step at once into Canada," he says, "they have provided, after two months' delay, for a regular force requiring twelve to raise it, and after three months for a volunteer force, on terms not likely to raise it at all for that object. The mixture of good and bad, avowed and disguised motives, accounting for these things, is curious enough, but not to be explained in the compass of a letter." This is not the tone of either hope or fear. If war was in his mind at that time, it was not war with England. Three weeks later he writes to Barlow at Paris. On various points of negotiation between that minister and the French government, he observes much that "suggests distrust rather than expectation." He complains of delay, of vagueness, of neglect, of discourtesy, of a disregard of past obligations as to the liberation of ships and cargoes seized, and of late condemnations of ships captured in the Baltic; and concerning all these and other grievances he says: "We find so little of explicit dealing or substantial redress mingled with the compliments and encouragements, which cost nothing because they mean nothing, that suspicions are unavoidable; and if they be erroneous, the fault does not lie with those who entertain them." He believed that France, in asking for a new treaty, which he thinks[294] unnecessary, is only seeking to gain time in order to take advantage of future events. The commercial relations between the two countries are so intolerable that trade "will be prohibited if no essential change take place." Unless there be indemnity for the great wrongs committed under the Rambouillet decree, and for other spoliations, he declares that "there can be neither cordiality nor confidence here; nor any restraint from self-redress in any justifiable mode of effecting it." The letter concludes with the emphatic assertion that, if dispatches soon looked for "do not exhibit the French government in better colors than it has yet assumed, there will be but one sentiment in this country; and I need not say what that will be."

Congress all this while was lashing itself into fury against England. The ambitious young leaders of the Democratic party in the House were, so to speak, "spoiling for a fight," and they chose to have it out with England rather than with France. Not that there was not quite as much reason for resentment against France as against England. Some, indeed, of the more hot-headed were anxious for war with both; but these were of the more impulsive kind, like Henry Clay, who laughed in scorn at the doubt that he could not at a blow subdue the Canadas with a few regiments of Kentucky militia. But war with England was determined upon, partly because the old enmity toward her made that intolerable[295] which to the old affection for France was a burden lightly borne; and partly because the instinctive jealousy of the commercial interest, on the part of the planter-interest, preferred that policy which would do the most harm to the North. On April 1, 1812, just five weeks after the writing of this letter to Barlow, Mr. Madison sent to Congress a message of five lines recommending the immediate passage of an act to impose "a general embargo on all vessels now in port or hereafter arriving for the period of sixty days." It was meant to be a secret measure; but the intention leaked out in two or three places, and the news was hurried North by several of the Federalist members in time to enable some of their constituents to send their ships to sea before the act was passed. Nor, probably, was it a surprise to anybody; for war with England had been the topic of debate in one aspect or another all winter, and the purpose of the party in power was plain to everybody. That the embargo was intended as a preparation for war was frankly acknowledged. An act was speedily passed, though the period was extended from sixty to ninety days. Within less than sixty days, however, another message from the President recommended a declaration of war. On June 3 the Committee on Foreign Relations, of which Calhoun was chairman, reported in favor of "an immediate appeal to arms," and the next day a declaratory act was passed. Of the seventy-nine affirmative votes in the House, forty-eight[296] were from the South and West, and of the other thirty-one votes from the Northern States, fourteen were from Pennsylvania alone. Of the forty-nine votes against it, thirty-four were from the Northern States, including two from Pennsylvania. On the 17th, a fortnight later, the bill was got through the Senate by a majority of six.

Mr. Madison for years had opposed a war with England as unwise and useless,—unwise, because the United States was not in a condition to go to war with the greatest naval power in the world; and useless, because the end to be reached by war could be gained more certainly, and at infinitely less cost, by peaceful measures. The situation had not changed. Indeed, up to within a month of the message recommending an embargo as a precursor of war, his letters show that, if he thought war was inevitable, it must be with France, not England. But the faction determined upon war must have at their command an administration to carry out that policy. Their choice was not limited to Madison for an available candidate. Whoever was nominated by the Democrats was sure to be chosen, and Madison had two formidable rivals in James Monroe, secretary of state, and De Witt Clinton, mayor of New York, both eager for war. The choice depended on that question and between the embargo message of April 1 and the war message of June 1, the nomination was given to Madison by the congressional caucus. It was understood, and openly asserted at the time by the[297] opponents of the administration, that the nomination was the price of a change of policy. At the next session of Congress, before a year had passed away, Mr. Quincy said in the House: "The great mistake of all those who reasoned concerning the war and the invasion of Canada, and concluded that it was impossible that either should be seriously intended, resulted from this, that they never took into consideration the connection of both those events with the great election for the chief magistracy which was then pending. It was never sufficiently considered by them that plunging into a war with Great Britain was among the conditions on which the support for the presidency was made dependent." The assertion, so plainly aimed at Madison, passed unchallenged, though the charge of any distinct bargain was vehemently denied.

If Mr. Madison's conscience was not always vigorous enough to enable him to resist temptation, it was so sensitive as to prompt him to look for excuses for yielding. In a sense this was to his credit as one of the better sort of politicians, without assuming it to be akin to that hypocrisy which is the homage vice pays to virtue. Perhaps it was this sentiment which led him to accept so readily the pretended disclosures of John Henry, and to make the use of them he did. These were contained in twenty-four letters, for which the President, apparently without hesitation, paid fifty thousand dollars. On March 9 he sent them to Congress with a message, and on the same day, in[298] a letter to Jefferson, alludes to them as "this discovery, or rather formal proof of the co?peration between the Eastern Junto and the British cabinet." In the message he intimates that this secret agent was sent directly by the British government to Massachusetts to foment disaffection, to intrigue "with the disaffected for the purpose of bringing about resistance to the laws, and eventually, in concert with a British force, of destroying the union" and reannexing the Eastern States to England. In the war message of June 1 these charges are repeated as among the reasons for an appeal to arms. Mr. Calhoun's committee followed this lead and improved upon it in the report recommending an immediate declaration of war. The Henry affair was declared an "act of still greater malignity" than any of the other outrages against the United States of which Great Britain had been guilty, and that which "excited the greatest horror." The incident was seized upon, apparently, to answer a temporary purpose, and then, so far as Mr. Madison was concerned, was permitted to sink into oblivion. In the hundreds of pages of his published letters, written in later life, in which he reviews and explains so many of the events of his public career, there is no allusion whatever to the Henry disclosures, which in 1812 were held, with the ruin of American commerce and the impressment of thousands of American citizens, as an equally just cause for war. In truth there was nothing whatever in these disclosures, for which[299] was paid an amount equal to the salary of half a presidential term, to warrant the assumptions of either Mr. Madison's messages or Mr. Calhoun's report. The man had been sent, at his own suggestion, early in 1809, by the governor of Canada to Massachusetts to learn the state of affairs there and observe the drift of public opinion. His national proclivity—he was an Irishman—to conspiracy and revolution had led him to see in the dissatisfaction with the embargo a determination in the New England people to destroy the union, reannex themselves to England, and return to the flesh-pots of the colonial period. To learn how far gone they were in these designs, to put himself in intimate relations with the leading conspirators and to bring them into communication with Sir James Craig, the governor-general of Canada, that sufficient aid should come through him at the proper moment from the British government, was Henry's mission. Of this truly Irish plot Henry was the villain and Craig the fool; but it is hardly possible that three years afterward Madison and his friends, with all the letters spread before them, could really have been the dupes.

Henry went to Boston and remained there about three months, living at a tavern. He found out nothing because there was nothing to be found out. He knew nobody, and nobody of any note knew him, and all the information he sent to Craig might have been, and doubtless was, picked up in the ordinary political gossip of the tavern barroom,[300] or culled from the columns of the newspapers of both parties. He compromised nobody, for—as Mr. Monroe, as secretary of state, testified in a report to the Senate—he named no person or persons in the United States who had, "in any way or manner whatever, entered into or countenanced the project or views" of himself and Craig; and all he had to say was pointless and unimportant, except so far as his opinions might have some interest as those of a shrewd observer of public events. Indeed, his own conclusion was that there was no conspiracy in the Eastern States; that the Federal party was strong enough to keep the peace with England; and that there was no talk of disunion, nor any likelihood of it unless it should be brought about by war. The correspondence itself showed, in a letter from Robert Peel, then secretary to Lord Liverpool, that the letters of Henry were found, as a matter of course, among Canadian official papers, as they related to public affairs; but they had either never attracted any attention or had been entirely forgotten, and Lord Liverpool was quite ignorant of any "arrangement or agreement" that had been made between the governor of Canada and his emissary to New England. It was only because of his failure to get any reward from the British government or from Craig's successor in Canada, for what he was pleased to call his services, that the adventurer came to Washington in search of a market for himself and his papers. He came at[301] an opportune moment. Notwithstanding the secretary of state frankly declared, that neither by writing nor by word of mouth did the man implicate by name anybody in the United States; notwithstanding one of the letters was evidence, the more conclusive because incidental, that the British secretary of state had known nothing of this mission contrived between Henry and Craig,—yet Mr. Madison pronounced the letters to be the "formal proof of the co?peration between the Eastern Junto and the British cabinet." The charge was monstrous, for this pretended proof had no existence. If the President, however, could persuade himself that the story was true, it would help him to justify himself to himself for a change of policy, the result of which would be the coveted renomination for the presidency.

Not that there had never been talk of disunion in New England. There had been in years past, as there was to be in years to come. But talk of that kind did not belong exclusively to that particular period, nor was it confined to that particular region of country. Ever since the adoption of the Constitution the one thing that orators, North and South, inside the halls of Congress and outside them, were agreed upon was, that in all debate there was one argument, equally good on both sides, to which there could be no reply; that in all legislation there was one possible supreme move that would bring all the wheels of government to a dead stop. The solemn warning or the angry[302] threat was always in readiness for instant use, that the bonds of the union, in one or another contingency, were to be rent asunder. But so frequent had been these warning cries of the coming wolf that they were listened to with indifference, except when some positive act indicated real danger, as in the Jefferson-Madison "resolutions of '98." It was easy, therefore, to alarm the public with confessions of a secret emissary, as he pretended, who had turned traitor to the government which had employed him and to the conspirators to whom he had been sent; and the more reprehensible was it, therefore, in a President of the United States, to make the use that was made of this story, which an impartial examination would have shown was essentially absurd and infamously false. Mr. Madison's intelligence is not to be impugned. He was too sagacious, as well as too unimpassioned a man, to be taken in by the ingenious tale of such an adventurer as Henry. In a letter to Colonel David Humphreys, written the next spring, in defense of the policy of commercial restrictions, he says: "I have never allowed myself to believe that the union was in danger, or that a dissolution of it could be desired, unless by a few individuals, if such there be, in desperate situations or of unbridled passions." New England, he continues, "would be the greatest loser by such an event, and not likely therefore deliberately to rush into it." "On what basis," he asks, "could New England and Old England form[303] commercial stipulations?" Their commercial jealousy, he contends, forbade an alliance between them, for that was "the real source of our Revolution." He closes with the significant assertion that, "if there be links of common interest between the two countries, they would connect the Southern and not the Northern States with that part of Europe." How, then, could he seriously accept Henry's pretended disclosures as "formal proof," as he wrote to Jefferson at that time, "of the co?peration between the Eastern Junto and the British cabinet"? By the Eastern Junto is meant the Federal party, or at least the influential and able leaders of that party; and he could not consider, nor would he have spoken of them as "a few individuals, if such there be, in desperate situations or of unbridled passions." He accepted, then, the Henry story in spite of his deliberate opinions, as a help to involve the country in a party war.

Even at the risk of some prolixity it is needful to follow the course of events that led to this war a little farther; for here was the culmination of Mr. Madison's career, and from his course in shaping and directing these events we best learn what manner of man he was, and where his true place is among the public men of our earlier history. For a year and a half the United States had acted on the assumption that France had recalled her decrees, and that England had not revoked her orders. The extracts from Mr. Madison's letters, given on previous pages, show his conviction that the revo[304]cation of either decrees or orders was practically no more true of one power than it was of the other. The government of the United States, nevertheless, submitted to the one, and against the other it first re?nacted the non-intercourse act, then proclaimed an embargo preparatory to war, and finally declared war. Yet the whole world knew, and nobody so surely as the emperor of France, that the Berlin and Milan decrees had never been formally repealed at all; meanwhile French outrages upon American commerce had continued, and all redress so persistently refused that, so late as the last week in February, 1812, the President intimated that war—war with France, not England—might prove the only remedy. But he suddenly yielded to the clamors of the war party at home, whatever may have been his motive. Then, and not till then, were the decrees actually revoked by Napoleon. In May, 1812, more than a month after the President had recommended an embargo, the hostile purport of which was so well understood, a decree was proclaimed by the emperor which for the first time really revoked those of Berlin and Milan. True, it was dated—"purported to be dated," it was said in an official English document—April, 1811. But that was of no moment; the essential point was, that it had never seen the light; that any hint of its existence had never been given to the American government, or its representatives abroad, till the United States had taken measures to "cause their rights to be respected by the Eng[305]lish," which was the original condition of a revocation of the decrees. Its ostensible date was when the news reached France that non-intercourse had been again enforced against England in March, 1811; but its promulgation was to all intents and purposes the real date, when news reached France, in April or May, 1812, that war against England was finally determined upon.

The Duke of Bassano, the French minister, had not, moreover, brought out this year-old decree without pressure from the American minister, Barlow. The President had written Barlow, in that February letter already quoted, that if his expected dispatches did not "exhibit the conduct of the French government in better colors than it has yet assumed, there will be but one sentiment in this country, and I need not say what that will be." When the dispatches came, Mr. Madison received no assurances of redress for past wrongs and no promises for the future; but he learned, on the contrary, that Bassano, in a recent report to the emperor, had referred to the decrees of Berlin and Milan as still in force against all neutral nations which submitted to the seizure of their ships by the British when containing contraband goods or enemy's property. Naturally the British ministry was not slow in presenting this precious acknowledgment to the United States as a proof that she had all along been in the wrong, and that in common justice to England the non-importation act should now be repealed. The assurance was at the[306] same time repeated, possibly in a tone of considerable satisfaction, that when Napoleon really should revoke his decrees Great Britain was ready, as she always had been, to follow his example with her orders. It was an awkward dilemma for the President and his minister to France. But by this time, the Presidential nomination impending, Mr. Madison had made up his mind what to do. He was not exactly a wolf; neither was Great Britain a lamb; but the argument he used was the argument of the fable. Instead of advising—Bassano having declared the decrees still in force—a repeal of the non-importation act, as Great Britain claimed was in justice and comity her due, he recommended a war measure. But Barlow evidently felt himself to be under some decent restraint of logic and consistency. He urged upon the French minister the necessity now of a positive and imperial declaration that the decrees, so far as regarded the United States, were absolutely revoked; for this recent assertion of Bassano, that they were still in force, put the United States in an attitude both towards France and England utterly and absurdly in the wrong. Barlow represented that, should the revocation be extended only to the United States, Great Britain would not for that alone repeal her orders. In that case France would lose nothing of the advantage of her present position, while everything would be lost should the United States be compelled to repeal her non-importation laws against England. Bassano was quick to see the[307] necessity of jumping into the bramble-bush and scratching his eyes in again, and he then produced his year-old edict. Being a year old, it of course covered all questions. But was it a year old? Who knew? It had never been published? No, the duke said; but it had been shown to Mr. Jonathan Russell, who at that time was chargé d'affaires at Paris. Mr. Russell denied it, though a denial was hardly needed. He would not have ventured to withhold information so important from his government; and it was evident, from the tone of his dispatches of a subsequent date, that he had no suspicion of its existence. For he had maintained it, as a point of "national honor," that the revocation of the French decrees must have preceded the President's proclamation of November 1, 1810; and this he would not have dared to do had he known that the actual revocation by the French minister was not made till six months after the date of the President's proclamation, and was then made secretly.

However, as if to defeat all these machinations of France and the United States, Great Britain immediately recalled her orders in council, when, in May, 1812, the Duke of Bassano announced the edict of April, 1811, revoking the Berlin and Milan decrees, though so far only as they concerned American vessels. The declaration of war of June 18 had not reached England, and there was still a chance for peace. Foster, the late English minister to the United States, learned at Halifax—where he had stopped on his way home—that[308] the orders in council were repealed, and he took immediate steps to bring about an armistice between the naval commanders on the coast of Nova Scotia, and between the governor of Canada and the American general, Dearborn, in command of the frontier. The government at Washington, however, refused to ratify any suspension of hostilities. Some negotiations followed, but, decrees and orders being out of the way, there was nothing left to negotiate about except the question of impressment. Upon that question the two governments were as wide apart as ever, and not in the least likely to come together. Mr. Madison determined that on that ground alone the war should go on. It had been as good and sufficient ground for such a war any time for the past dozen years; but whether it could be settled by an appeal to arms was a question of possibilities and probabilities by which both Jefferson and Madison had hitherto been ruled. Was that still the essential question? With the result came the answer. Two years later the administration was glad to accept a treaty of peace in which impressment was not even alluded to. Great Britain did not relinquish by a syllable her assumed right to board American ships in search of British seamen; and the administration instructed its peace commissioners not even to ask that she should.


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