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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter IX. The Last Phase of Peaceable Coercion
by Johnson, Allen


Three days after Jefferson gave his consent to the repeal of the embargo, the Presidency passed in succession to the second of the Virginia Dynasty. It was not an impressive figure that stood beside Jefferson and faced the great crowd gathered in the new Hall of Representatives at the Capitol. James Madison was a pale, extremely nervous, and obviously unhappy person on this occasion. For a masterful character this would have been the day of days; for Madison it was a fearful ordeal which sapped every ounce of energy. He trembled violently as he began to speak and his voice was almost inaudible. Those who could not hear him but who afterward read the Inaugural Address doubtless comforted themselves with the reflection that they had not missed much. The new President, indeed, had nothing new to say--no new policy to advocate. He could only repeat the old platitudes about preferring "amicable discussion and reasonable accommodation of differences to a decision of them by an appeal to arms." Evidently, no strong assertion of national rights was to be expected from this plain, homespun President.

At the Inaugural Ball, however, people forgot their President in admiration of the President's wife, Dolly Madison. "She looked a queen," wrote Mrs. Margaret Bayard Smith. "She had on a pale buff-colored velvet, made plain, with a very long train, but not the least trimming, and beautiful pearl necklace, earrings, and bracelets. Her head dress was a turban of the same colored velvet and white satin (from Paris) with two superb plumes, the bird of paradise feathers. It would be absolutely imporrisblefor any one to behave with more perfect propriety than she did. Unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace. Mr. Madison, on the contrary," continued this same warm-hearted observer, "seemed spiritless and exhausted. While he was standing by me, I said, 'I wish with all my heart I had a little bit of seat to offer you.' 'I wish so too,' said he, with a most woebegone face, and looking as if he could hardly stand. The managers came up to ask him to stay to supper, he assented, and turning to me, 'but I would much rather be in bed,' he said." Quite different was Mr. Jefferson on this occasion. He seemed to be in high spirits and "his countenance beamed with a benevolent joy." It seemed to this ardent admirer that "every demonstration of respect to Mr. M. gave Mr. J. more pleasure than if paid to himself." No wonder that Mr. Jefferson was in good spirits. Was he not now free from all the anxieties and worries of politics? Already he was counting on retiring "to the elysium of domestic affections and the irresponsible direction" of his own affairs. A week later he set out for Monticello on horseback, never again to set foot in the city which had witnessed his triumph and his humiliation.

The election of Madison had disclosed wide rifts in his party. Monroe had lent himself to the designs of John Randolph and had entered the list of candidates for the Presidency; and Vice-President Clinton had also been put forward by other malcontents. It was this division in the ranks of the opposition which in the end had insured Madison's election; but factional differences pursued Madison into the White House. Even in the choice of his official family he was forced to consider the preferences of politicians whom he despised, for when he would have appointed Gallatin Secretary of State, he found Giles of Virginia and Samuel Smith of Maryland bent upon defeating the nomination. The Smith faction was, indeed, too influential to be ignored; with a wry face Madison stooped to a bargain which left Gallatin at the head of the Treasury but which saddled his Administration with Robert Smith, who proved to be quite unequal to the exacting duties of the Department of State.

The Administration began with what appeared to be a great diplomatic triumph. In April the President issued a proclamation announcing that the British orders-in-council would be withdrawn on the 10th of June, after which date commerce with Great Britain might be renewed. In the newspapers appeared, with this welcome proclamation, a note drafted by the British Minister Erskine expressing the confident hope that all differences between the two countries would be adjusted by a special envoy whom His Majesty had determined to send to the United States. The Republican press was jubilant. At last the sage of Monticello was vindicated. "It may be boldly alleged," said the National Intelligencer, "that the revocation of the British orders is attributable to the embargo."

Forgotten now were all the grievances against Great Britain. Every shipping port awoke to new life. Merchants hastened to consign the merchandise long stored in their warehouses; shipmasters sent out runners for crews; and ships were soon winging their way out into the open sea. For three months American vessels crossed the ocean unmolested, and then came the bitter, the incomprehensible news that Erskine's arrangement had been repudiated and the over-zealous diplomat recalled. The one brief moment of triumph in Madison's administration had passed.

Slowly and painfully the public learned the truth. Erskine had exceeded his instructions. Canning had not been averse to concessions, it is true, but he had named as an indispensable condition of any concession that the United States should bind itself to exclude French ships of war from its ports. Instead of holding to the letter of his instructions, Erskine had allowed himself to be governed by the spirit of concession and had ignored the essential prerequisite. Nothing remained but to renew the NonIntercourse Act against Great Britain. This the President did by proclamation on August 9, 1809, and the country settled back sullenly into commercial inactivity.

Another scarcely less futile chapter in diplomacy began with the arrival of Francis James Jackson as British Minister in September. Those who knew this Briton were justified in concluding that conciliation had no important place in the programme of the Foreign Office, for it was he who, two years before, had conducted those negotiations with Denmark which culminated in the bombardment and destruction of Copenhagen. "It is rather a prevailing notion here," wrote Pinkney from London, "that this gentleman's conduct will not and cannot be what we all wish." And this impression was so fully shared by Madison that he would not hasten his departure from Montpelier but left Jackson to his own devices at the capital for a full month.

This interval of enforced inactivity had one unhappy consequence. Not finding employment for all his idle hours, Jackson set himself to read the correspondence of his predecessor, and from it he drew the conclusion that Erskine was a greater fool than he had thought possible, and that the American Government had been allowed to use language of which "every third word was a declaration of war." The further he read the greater his ire, so that when the President arrived in Washington (October 1), Jackson was fully resolved to let the American Government know what was due to a British Minister who had had audiences "with most of the sovereigns of Europe."

Though neither the President nor Gallatin, to whose mature judgment he constantly turned, believed that Jackson had any proposals to make, they were willing to let Robert Smith carry on informal conversations with him. It speedily appeared that so far from making overtures, Jackson was disposed to await proposals. The President then instructed the Secretary of State to announce that further discussions would be "in the written form" and henceforth himself took direct charge of negotiations. The exchange of letters which followed reveals Madison at his best. His rapier-like thrusts soon pierced even the thick hide of this conceited Englishman. The stupid Smith who signed these letters appeared to be no mean adversary after all.

In one of his rejoinders the British Minister yielded to a flash of temper and insinuated (as Canning in his instructions had done) that the American Government had known Erskine's instructions and had encouraged him to set them aside--had connived in short at his wrongdoing. "Such insinuations," replied Madison sharply, "are inadmissible in the intercourse of a foreign minister with a government that understands what it owes itself." "You will find that in my correspondence with you," wrote Jackson angrily, "I have carefully avoided drawing conclusions that did not necessarily follow from the premises advanced by me, and least of all should I think of uttering an insinuation where I was unable to substantiate a fact." A fatal outburst of temper which delivered the writer into the hands of his adversary. "Sir," wrote the President, still using the pen of his docile secretary, "finding that you have used a language which cannot be understood but as reiterating and even aggravating the same gross insinuation, it only remains, in order to preclude opportunities which are thus abused, to inform you that no further communications will be received from you." Therewith terminated the American Mission of Francis James Jackson.

Following this diplomatic episode, Congress Wain sought a way of escape from the consequences of total nonintercourse. It finally enacted a bill known as Macon's Bill No. 2, which in a sense reversed the former policy, since it left commerce everywhere free, and authorized the President, "in case either Great Britain or France shall, before the 3d day of March next, so revoke or modify her edicts as that they shall cease to violate the neutral commerce of the United States," to cut off trade with the nation which continued to offend. The act thus gave the President an immense discretionary power which might bring the country face to face with war. It was the last act in that extraordinary series of restrictive measures which began with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1806. The policy of peaceful coercion entered on its last phase.

And now, once again, the shadow of the Corsican fell across the seas. With the unerring shrewdness of an intellect never vexed by ethical considerations, Napoleon announced that he would meet the desires of the American Government. "I am authorized to declare to you, Sir," wrote the Duc de Cadore, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Armstrong, "that the Decrees of Berlin and Milan are revoked, and that after November 1 they will cease to have effect--it being understood that in consequence of this declaration the English are to revoke their Orders-in-Council, and renounce the new principles of blockade which they have wished to establish; or that the United States, conformably to the Act you have just communicated [the Macon Act], cause their rights to be respected by the English."

It might be supposed that President Madison, knowing with whom he had to deal, would have hesitated to accept Napoleon's asseverations at their face value. He had, indeed, no assurances beyond Cadore's letter that the French decrees had been repealed. But he could not let slip this opportunity to force Great Britain's hand. It seemed to be a last chance to test the effectiveness of peaceable coercion. On November 2, 1810, he issued the momentous proclamation which eventually made Great Britain rather than France the object of attack. "It has been officially made known to this government," said the President, "that the said edicts of France have been so revoked as that they ceased, on the first day of the present month, to violate the neutral commerce of the United States." Thereupon the Secretary of the Treasury instructed collectors of customs that commercial intercourse with Great Britain would be suspended after the 2d of February of the following year.

The next three months were full of painful experiences for President Madison. He waited, and waited in vain, for authentic news of the formal repeal of the French decrees; and while he waited, he was distressed and amazed to learn that American vessels were still being confiscated in French ports. In the midst of these uncertainties occurred the biennial congressional elections, the outcome of which only deepened his perplexities. Nearly one-half of those who sat in the existing Congress failed of reelection, yet, by a vicious custom, the new House, which presumably reflected the popular mood in 1810, would not meet for thirteen months, while the old discredited Congress wearily dragged out its existence in a last session. Vigorous presidential leadership, it is true, might have saved the expiring Congress from the reproach of incapacity, but such leadership was not to be expected from James Madison.

So it was that the President's message to this moribund Congress was simply a counsel of prudence and patience. It pointed out, to be sure, the uncertainties of the situation, but it did not summon Congress sternly to face the alternatives. It alluded mildly to the need of a continuance of our defensive and precautionary arrangements, and suggested further organization and training of the militia; it contemplated with satisfaction the improvement of the quantity and quality of the output of cannon and small arms; it set the seal of the President's approval upon the new military academy; but nowhere did it sound a trumpet-call to real preparedness.

Even to these mild suggestions Congress responded indifferently. It slightly increased the naval appropriations, but it actually reduced the appropriations for the army; and it adjourned without acting on the bill authorizing the President to enroll fifty thousand volunteers. Personal animosity and prejudice combined to defeat the proposals of the Secretary of the Treasury. A bill to recharter the national bank, which Gallatin regarded as an indispensable fiscal agent, was defeated; and a bill providing for a general increase of duties on imports to meet the deficit was laid aside. Congress would authorize a loan of five million dollars but no new taxes. Only one bill was enacted which could be said to sustain the President's policy--that reviving certain parts of the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 against Great Britain. With this last helpless gasp the Eleventh Congress expired.

The defeat of measures which the Administration had made its own amounted to a vote of no confidence. Under similar circumstances an English Ministry would have either resigned or tested the sentiment of the country by a general election; but the American Executive possesses no such means of appealing immediately and directly to the electorate. President and Congress must live out their allotted terms of office, even though their antagonism paralyzes the operation of government. What, then, could be done to restore confidence in the Administration of President Madison and to establish a modus vivendi between Executive and Legislative?

It seemed to the Secretary of Treasury, smarting under the defeat of his bank bill, that he had become a burden to the Administration, an obstacle in the way of cordial cooperation between the branches of the Federal Government. The factions which had defeated his appointment to the Department of State seemed bent upon discrediting him and his policies. "I clearly perceive," he wrote to the President, "that my continuing a member of the present Administration is no longer of any public utility, invigorates the opposition against yourself, and must necessarily be attended with an increased loss of reputation by myself. Under those impressions, not without reluctance, and after perhaps hesitating too long in the hopes of a favorable change, I beg leave to tender you my resignation."

This timely letter probably saved the Administration. Not for an instant could the President consider sacrificing the man who for ten years had been the mainstay of Republican power. Madison acted with unwonted promptitude. He refused to accept Gallatin's resignation, and determined to break once and for all with the faction which had hounded Gallatin from the day of his appointment and which had foisted upon the President an unwelcome Secretary of State. Not Gallatin but Robert Smith should go. Still more surprising was Madison's quick decision to name Monroe as Smith's successor, if he could be prevailed upon to accept. Both Virginians understood the deeper personal and political significance of this appointment. Madison sought an alliance with a faction which had challenged his administrative policy; Monroe inferred that no opposition would be interposed to his eventual elevation to the Presidency when Madison should retire. What neither for the moment understood was the effect which the appointment would have upon the foreign policy of the Administration. Monroe hesitated, for he and his friends had been open critics of the President's pro-French policy. Was the new Secretary of State to be bound by this policy, or was the President prepared to reverse his course and effect a reconciliation with England?

These very natural misgivings the President brushed aside by assuring Monroe's friends that he was very hopeful of settling all differences with both France and England. Certainly he had in no wise committed himself to a course which would prevent a renewal of negotiations with England; he had always desired "a cordial accommodation." Thus reassured, Monroe accepted the invitation, never once doubting that he would reverse the policy of the Administration, achieve a diplomatic triumph, and so appear as the logical successor to President Madison.

Had the new Secretary of State known the instructions which the British Foreign Office was drafting at this moment for Mr. Augustus J. Foster, Jackson's successor, he would have been less sanguine. This "very gentlemanlike young man," as Jackson called him, was told to make some slight concessions to American sentiment--he might make proper amends for the Chesapeake affair but on the crucial matter of the French decrees he was bidden to hold rigidly to the uncompromising position taken by the Foreign Office from the beginning--that the President was mistaken in thinking that they had been repealed. The British Government could not modify its orders-in-council on unsubstantiated rumors that the offensive French decrees had been revoked. Secretly Foster was informed that the Ministry was prepared to retaliate if the American Government persisted in shutting out British importations. No one in the ministry, or for that matter in the British Isles, seems to have understood that the moment had come for concession and not retaliation, if peaceful relations were to continue.

It was most unfortunate that while Foster was on his way to the United States, British cruisers would have renewed the blockade of New York. Two frigates, the Melampus and the Guerriere, lay off Sandy Hook and resumed the old irritating practice of holding up American vessels and searching them for deserters. In the existing state of American feeling, with the Chesapeake outrage still unredressed, the behavior of the British commanders was as perilous as walking through a powder magazine with a live coal. The American navy had suffered severely from Jefferson's "chaste reformation" but it had not lost its fighting spirit. Officers who had served in the war with Tripoli prayed for a fair chance to avenge the Chesapeake; and the Secretary of the Navy had abetted this spirit in his orders to Commodore John Rodgers, who was patrolling the coast with a squadron of frigates and sloops. "What has been perpetrated," Rodgers was warned, "may be again attempted. It is therefore our duty to be prepared and determined at every hazard to vindicate the injured honor of our navy, and revive the drooping spirit of the nation."

Under the circumstances it would have been little short of a miracle if an explosion had not occurred; yet for a year Rodgers sailed up and down the coast without encountering the British frigates. On May 16, 1811, however, Rodgers in his frigate, the President, sighted a suspicious vessel some fifty miles off Cape Henry. From her general appearance he judged her to be a man-of-war and probably the Guerriere. He decided to approach her, he relates, in order to ascertain whether a certain seaman alleged to have been impressed was aboard; but the vessel made off and he gave chase. By dusk the two ships were abreast. Exactly what then happened will probably never be known, but all accounts agree that a shot was fired and that a general engagement followed. Within fifteen minutes the strange vessel was disabled and lay helpless under the guns of the President, with nine of her crew dead and twenty-three wounded. Then, to his intense disappointment, Rodgers learned that his adversary was not the Guerriere but the British sloop of war Little Belt, a craft greatly inferior to his own.

However little this one-sided sea fight may have salved the pride of the American navy, it gave huge satisfaction to the general public. The Chesapeake was avenged. When Foster disembarked he found little interest in the reparations which he was charged to offer. He had been prepared to settle a grievance in a good-natured way; he now felt himself obliged to demand explanations. The boot was on the other leg; and the American public lost none of the humor of the situation. Eventually he offered to disavow Admiral Berkeley's act, to restore the seamen taken from the Chesapeake, and to compensate them and their families. In the course of time the two unfortunates who had survived were brought from their prison at Halifax and restored to the decks of the Chesapeake in Boston Harbor. But as for the Little Belt, Foster had to rest content with the findings of an American court of inquiry which held that the British sloop had fired the first shot. As yet there were no visible signs that Monroe had effected a change in the foreign policy of the Administration, though he had given the President a momentary advantage over the opposition. Another crisis was fast approaching. When Congress met a month earlier than usual, pursuant to the call of the President, the leadership passed from the Administration to a group of men who had lost all faith in commercial restrictions as a weapon of defense against foreign aggression.

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