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CHAPTER XX CONCLUSION
Early in the war Mr. Madison said to a friend, in a letter "altogether private and written in confidence," that the way to make the conflict both "short and successful would be to convince the enemy that he was to contend with the whole and not part of the nation." That it was a war of a party, and not of the people, was a discouragement to himself, however the enemy may have regarded it, which he could never see any way of overcoming. He could not listen to an opponent nor learn anything from disaster. "If the war must continue," said Webster within a year of its end, "go to the ocean. Let it no longer be said that not one ship of force, built by your hands since the war, yet floats. If you are seriously contending for maritime rights, go to the theatre where those rights can be defended.... There the united wishes and exertions of the nation will go with you. Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water's edge.... In protecting naval interests by naval means, you will arm yourself with the whole power of national sentiment, and may command the whole[310] abundance of national forces." Taking now in one view the events of those years, it is easy to see in our generation how mad were Madison and his party to turn deaf ears to such considerations as these. Their force and wisdom had already been proved by eighteen months of disaster on land, which had made the war daily more and more unpopular; and by brilliant success for a time at sea, when each fresh victory was hailed with universal enthusiasm. "Our little naval triumphs," was the President's way of speaking of the latter; and the only importance he seems to have seen in them was, that they excited some "rage and jealousy" in England and moved her to increase her naval force. How could Mr. Madison expect that the whole and not a part only of the nation could uphold an administration which, after eighteen months of fighting, could be reproached on the floor of Congress with not having launched a ship since the war was begun? Or did he only choose to remember that the navy, which alone so far had brought either success or honor to the national arms, was the creation of the Federalists in spite of the Jeffersonian policy? It surely would have been wiser to try to propitiate New England, with which he was in perpetual worry and conflict, by enlisting it in a naval war in which it had some faith. A large proportion of her people would have been glad to escape idleness and poverty at home for service at sea, though they were reluctant to aid in a vain attempt to conquer Canada.
Battle of Lake Erie Battle of Lake Erie

[311]

Even to that purpose, however, Massachusetts contributed, in the second campaign of 1814, more recruits than any other single State; and New England more than all the Southern States together. New England could have given no stronger proof of her loyalty, if only Mr. Madison had known how to turn it to advantage. He was absolutely deaf and blind to it; but his ears were quick to hear and his eyes to see, when he learned presently that the New Englanders were seriously calculating the value of the union under such rule as they had had of late. It was not often that he relieved himself by intemperate language, but he could not help saying now, in writing to Governor Nicholas of Virginia, that "the greater part of the people in that quarter have been brought by their leaders, aided by their priests, under a delusion scarcely exceeded by that recorded in the period of witchcraft; and the leaders themselves are becoming daily more desperate in the use they make of it." The "delusion" was taking a practical direction. Mr. Madison had learned before the letter was written that a convention was about to meet at Hartford, the object of which was to weigh in a balance, upon the one side, the continuation of such government as that of the last two or three years, and, upon the other side, the value of the union. He ardently hoped that the commissioners, then assembled at Ghent, would agree upon a treaty; and there seemed to be no good reason why there should not be peace when nothing was[312] to be said of the cause of the war, no apology demanded for the past, and no stipulation for the future. But if by any chance the commissioners should fail, Mr. Madison saw in the Hartford Convention the huge shadow of a coming conflict more difficult to deal with than a foreign war. It was the first step in dead earnest for the formation of a Northern Confederacy, and it is quite possible he may have felt that he was not the man for such a crisis. Every line of the letter pulsates with anxiety. The only consoling thought in it is that without "foreign co?peration revolt and separation will hardly be risked," and to such co?peration he hoped a majority of the New England people would not consent. A treaty of peace, however, came to save him and the union. Within a few weeks the administration papers were laughing at Harrison Gray Otis of Boston, who had started for Washington as the representative of the Hartford Convention, but turned back at the news of peace; and were advertising him as missing under the name of Titus Oates. It was, however, the hysterical laugh of recovery from a terrible fright.

If ambition to be a second time President led Mr. Madison to consent against his own better judgment to a war with England, he paid a heavy penalty. It was the act of a party politician and not of a statesman; for the country was no more prepared for a war in 1812, when as a politician he assented to it, than it had been for the previous[313] half dozen years when as a statesman he had opposed it. He gave the influence of the United States in support of a despotism that aimed at the subjugation of all Europe; he threw a fresh obstacle in the way of that power to which Europe could chiefly look to resist a common enemy; and he did both under the pretense that the just complaints of the United States were greater against one of these powers than against the other. He declared war mainly to redress a wrong which ceased to exist before a blow was struck; he then rejected an offer of peace because another wrong was still persisted in; but finally, of his own motion, he accepted a treaty in which the assumed cause of war was not even alluded to.

That Mr. Madison was not a good war President, either by training or by temperament, was, if it may be said of any man, his misfortune rather than his fault. But it was his fault rather than his misfortune that he permitted himself to be dragged in a day into a line of conduct which the sober judgment of years had disapproved. He is usually and most justly regarded as a man of great amiability of character; of unquestionable integrity in all the purely personal relations of life; of more than ordinary intellectual ability of a solid, though not brilliant, quality; and a diligent student of the science of government, the practice of which he made a profession. But he was better fitted by nature for a legislator than for executive office, and his fame would have been[314] more spotless, though his position would have been less exalted, had his life been exclusively devoted to that branch of government for which he was best fitted. It was not merely that for the sake of the Presidency he plunged the country into an unnecessary war; but when it was on his hands he neither knew what to do with it himself nor how to choose the right men who did know.

It is our amiable weakness—if one may venture to say so of the American people—that all our geese are swans, or rather eagles; that we are apt to mistake notoriety for reputation; that it is the popular belief of the larger number that he who, no matter how, has reached a distinguished position, is by virtue of that fact a great and good man. This is not less true, in a measure, of Mr. Madison than of some other men who have been Presidents, and of still more who have thought that they deserved to be. But, if that false estimate surrounds his name, there is a strong undercurrent of opinion, common among those whose business or whose pleasure it is to look beneath the surface of things historical, that he was wanting in strength of character and in courage. He did not lack discernment as to what was wisest and best; but he was too easily influenced by others, or led by the hope of gaining some glittering prize which ambition coveted, to turn his back upon his own convictions. It was this weakness which swept him beyond his depth into troubled waters where his struggles were hopeless. Had he refused[315] to assume the responsibility of a war which his judgment condemned, and which he should have known that he wanted the peculiar ability to bring to a successful and honorable conclusion, he might never have been President, but his fame would have been of a higher order. History might have overlooked the act of political fickleness in his earlier career, which was so warmly resented by many of his contemporaries. Abandonment of party is too common and often too justifiable to be accounted as necessarily a crime; and it can rarely be said with positiveness, whatever the probabilities, that a political deserter is certainly moved by base motives. It is rather from ex post facto than from immediate evidence, as in Madison's case, that a just verdict is likely to be reached. But there can be neither doubt nor mistake as to the President's management of foreign affairs during the two years preceding the declaration of war against England; nor of the remarkable incompetence which he showed in rallying the moral and material forces of the nation to meet an emergency of his own creation.

Opposition to war generally and therefore opposition to an army and navy were sound cardinal principles in the Jeffersonian school of politics. Mr. Madison was curiously blind to the logical consequences of this doctrine; he could not see, or he would not consider, that, when war seemed advisable to an administration, the result must depend mainly upon the success of the appeal to[316] the people for their countenance and help. But he unwisely sought to raise and employ an army for the invasion and conquest of the territory of the enemy in spite of the opposition of a large proportion of the wealthiest and most intelligent people in the country; while at the same time he refused to see any promise or any presage in a naval warfare which had opened with unexpected brilliancy, and would, had it been followed up, have been sure of popular support. His title to fame rests, with the multitude, upon the fact that he was one of the earlier Presidents of the republic. But it is that period of his career which least entitles him to be remembered with gratitude and respect by his countrymen.

Its crowning humiliation came with the capture of Washington in August, 1814, when the British admiral, Cockburn, entered the Hall of Representatives, at the head of a band of followers, and springing into the speaker's chair shouted: "Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned? All for it will say, Aye!" Early in the war Madison had written to Jefferson, "We do not apprehend invasion by land,"—the one thing, it would seem, that a commander-in-chief should have apprehended, whose single aim was the invasion and conquest of the enemy's territory. His devotion to this one purpose, to the exclusion of any other idea of either offense or defense, and in spite of continued failure, was almost an infatuation. Within a year of that expression of[317] confidence to Mr. Jefferson the whole coast was blockaded from the eastern end of Long Island Sound to the mouth of the Mississippi. For a year before Washington was taken, the shores of Chesapeake Bay were harassed and raided and devastated by a blockading force, till the people were reduced almost to the condition of a conquered country. Two months before the British commanders, Ross and Cockburn, went up the Potomac, Mr. Gallatin, who was then in London, had informed the President that the fleet was to be reinforced for that very purpose; but neither he nor Congress took any effective measures to meet a danger so imminent. Their eyes were fixed with a far-off gaze across the Northern border, while only five hundred regular troops, a body of untrained militia who had never heard the whistle of a bullet, and a few gunboats on the Potomac, guarded the national capital against a British fleet, a thousand marines, and thirty-five hundred men from Wellington's best regiments. The President fleeing in one direction with the secretary of war, the secretary of state, and the general in command; Mrs. Madison fleeing in another, with her reticule filled with silver spoons snatched up in haste as she left the White House;[15] behind them all as they fled, the horizon [318]red with the blaze of the largest navy yard in the country and of all the public buildings, but one, of the capital,—these incidents are an amazing commentary on the early assertion that invasion was not to be apprehended.

The end of this wretched war, which has been foolishly called the second war of independence, came four months afterward. Never was a peace so welcome as this was on all sides. England was exhausted with the long contest with Napoleon; and now, that being over, as there was no practical question to differ about with the United States, the ministry were not unwilling to listen to the demands of the commercial and manufacturing classes. In America so great was the universal joy that the Federalists and the Democrats forgot their differences and their hates, and wept and laughed by turns in each other's arms and kissed each other like women. One party was delivered from calamities for which, if continued[319] much longer, there seemed only one desperate and dreaded remedy; the other was overjoyed to back out of a blunder which was the straight and broad road to national ruin. Of all men, Mr. Madison had the most reason to be glad for a safe deliverance from the consequences of his own want of foresight and want of firmness. Less than two years remained to him of his public career. In that brief period much was forgotten and more forgiven—as our national way is—in the promise of a great prosperity to be speedily achieved in the released energies of a vigorous and industrious people. He had not again to choose between differing factions of his own party, nor to carry out a policy against the will of a formidable opposition. To the Federalists hardly a name was left in the progress of events at home and abroad; while all immediate vital questions of difference vanished, the party in power remained in almost undisputed ascendency. The most important Democratic measures it then insisted upon were a national bank and a protective tariff. To the establishment of a bank Mr. Madison assented against his own conviction that any provision could be found for it in the Constitution; and a tariff, both for revenue and for the protection and encouragement of American industry, he agreed with his party was the true policy.

For nearly twenty years after his retirement to Montpellier—a name which, with rare exceptions, he always spelled correctly, and not in the Ameri[320]can way—it was his privilege to live a watchful observer of the prosperity of his country. If it ever occurred to him in his secret soul that at the period of his pre?minence he had done anything to arrest that prosperity, he gave no sign. He loved rather to remember and sometimes to recall to others the part he had taken in the nurture of the young republic in the feeble days of its infancy. Of his own administration and the events of that time he had much less to say than of the true interpretation of the Constitution, of the intent of its framers, and the circumstances that influenced their deliberations. His voluminous correspondence shows the bent of his mind as a legislator and a student of fundamental law; and on that, rather than on his ability and success as the chief magistrate of the nation, rests his true fame.

These twenty years, though passed in retirement, were not years of leisure. "I have rarely," he wrote in 1827, "during the period of my public life, found my time less at my disposal than since I took my leave of it; nor have I the consolation of finding, that as my powers of application necessarily decline, the demands on them proportionally decrease." Much as he wrote upon questions of an earlier period, there were no topics of the current time that did not arouse his interest. Upon the subject of slavery he thought much and wrote much and always earnestly and humanely. How to get rid of it was a problem which he never solved to his own satisfaction. Though it was one[321] he always longed to see through, it never occurred to him that the way to abolish slavery was—to abolish it. How kind he was as a master, Paul Jennings bears witness. "I never," he says, "saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, though he had over a hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it." He rebuked those who were in fault; but, adds Jennings, he would "never mortify them by doing it before others." It will be remembered that on the first occasion of his being a candidate for public office he refused to follow the universal Virginian habit of "treating" the electors. To the principle which governed him then he adhered through life, and his letters show the warm interest he always took in every phase of the temperance movement. "I don't think he drank a quart of brandy in his whole life," says Jennings. A single glass of wine was all he ever took at dinner, and this he diluted with water, when, says the same witness, "he had hard drinkers at his table who had put away his choice madeira pretty freely." This will go for something, considering the times, with even the most zealous of the modern supporters of that cause; but they must be quite satisfied to know that "for the last fifteen years of his life he drank no wine at all." Consideration for his own health, always feeble, may have led him to this abstinence; but it is rather remarkable that a man of his position should have held, fifty years ago, the advanced notions which he certainly did[322] upon this question, and that the doubt only of the possibility of enforcing laws for prohibiting the manufacture and sale of spirits seems to have withheld him from proposing them.

Social as well as moral questions he discussed with evident interest and without passion or prejudice. Aside from the party meaning of the term, he belonged to that school of democracy, now extinct, which believed that the highest object of human exertion is to improve man's condition, and to secure to each the rights which belong to all. He did not agree with Robert Owen as to methods; but neither did he reject his schemes as inevitably absurd because they were new and untried. One would not gather from his correspondence with Frances Wright that this was the notorious Fanny Wright whom the world chose to consider, as its way is, a disreputable and probably wicked woman, inasmuch as she proposed some radical changes in its social relations which she thought would be a gain. He gave much attention to popular education, and all the influence he could command was devoted, through all the later years of his life, to the establishment and well-being of the University of Virginia. Education, he maintained, was the true foundation of civil liberty, and on it, therefore, rested the welfare and stability of the republic. It is probable that he would have drawn a line at difference of color then, simply because of the difference of condition implied by color. But he made no such distinction in sex.[323] Sixty-three years ago he saw his way quite clearly on a question which is a sore trial now to many timid souls. The capacity of "the female mind" for the highest education cannot, he said, "be doubted, having been sufficiently illustrated by its works of genius, of erudition, and of science." The capacity, he assumed, carried with it the right. In short, he was ready always to consider fairly questions relating to the well-being of society which since his time have deeply agitated the country; and he approached them all much in the spirit of the reformer who hopes to leave the world a little better and happier because he has lived in it.

"Mr. Madison, I think," says Paul Jennings, "was one of the best men that ever lived." This is the testimony of an intelligent man whose opportunities of knowing the personal qualities of him of whom he was speaking were more intimate than those of any other person could be except Mrs. Madison. "He was guilty," says Hildreth, "of the greatest political wrong and crime which it is possible for the head of a nation to commit." One saw the private gentleman, always conscientious and considerate in his personal relations to other men; the other judged the public man, moved by ambition, entangled in party ties and supposed party obligations, his moral sense blinded by the necessities of political compromises to reach party ends. It is not impossible to strike a just balance between these opposing estimates, though one is[324] that of a servant, the other that of a learned and judicious historian.

Mr. Madison left a legacy of "Advice to My Country," to be read after his death and to "be considered as issuing from the tomb, where truth alone can be respected, and the happiness of man alone consulted." It is the lesson of his life, as he wished his countrymen to understand it. "The advice," he said, "nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is, that the union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise." The thoughtful reader, as he turns to the first page of this volume to recall the date of Mr. Madison's death, will hardly fail to note how few the years were before these open and disguised enemies, against whom he warned his countrymen, were found only in that party which he had done so much, from the time of the adoption of the Constitution, to keep in power.

The End


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