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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
The War-Hawks
by Johnson, Allen

Among the many unsolved problems which Jefferson bequeathed to his successor in office was that of the southern frontier. Running like a shuttle through the warp of his foreign policy had been his persistent desire to acquire possession of the Spanish Floridas. This dominant desire, amounting almost to a passion, had mastered even his better judgment and had created dilemmas from which he did not escape without the imputation of duplicity. On his retirement he announced that he was leaving all these concerns "to be settled by my friend, Mr. Madison," yet he could not resist the desire to direct the course of his successor. Scarcely a month after he left office he wrote, "I suppose the conquest of Spain will soon force a delicate question on you as to the Floridas and Cuba, which will offer themselves to you. Napoleon will certainly give his consent without difficulty to our receiving the Floridas, and with some difficulty possibly Cuba."

In one respect Jefferson's intuition was correct. The attempt of Napoleon to subdue Spain and to seat his brother Joseph once again on the throne of Ferdinand VII was a turning point in the history of the Spanish colonies in America. One by one they rose in revolt and established revolutionary juntas either in the name of their deposed King or in professed cooperation with the insurrectionary government which was resisting the invader. Events proved that independence was the inevitable issue of all these uprisings from the Rio de la Plata to the Rio Grande.

In common with other Spanish provinces, West Florida felt the impact of this revolutionary spirit, but it lacked natural unity and a dominant Spanish population. The province was in fact merely a strip of coast extending from the Perdido River to the Mississippi, indented with bays into which great rivers from the north discharged their turgid waters. Along these bays and rivers were scattered the inhabitants, numbering less than one hundred thousand, of whom a considerable portion had come from the States. There, as always on the frontier, land had been a lodestone attracting both the speculator and the homeseeker. In the parishes of West Feliciana and Baton Rouge, in the alluvial bottoms of the Mississippi, and in the settlements around Mobile Bay, American settlers predominated, submitting with ill grace to the exactions of Spanish officials who were believed to be as corrupt as they were inefficient.

If events had been allowed to take their natural course, West Florida would in all probability have fallen into the arms of the United States as Texas did three decades later. But the Virginia Presidents were too ardent suitors to await the slow progress of events; they meant to assist destiny. To this end President Jefferson had employed General Wilkinson, with indifferent success. President Madison found more trustworthy agents in Governor Claiborne of New Orleans and Governor Holmes of Mississippi, whose letters reveal the extent to which Madison was willing to meddle with destiny. "Nature had decreed the union of Florida with the United States," Claiborne affirmed; but he was not so sure that nature could be left to execute her own decrees, for he strained every nerve to prepare the way for American intervention when the people of West Florida should declare themselves free from Spain. Holmes also was instructed to prepare for this eventuality and to cooperate with Claiborne in West Florida "in diffusing the impressions we wish to be made there."

The anticipated insurrection came off just when and where nature had decreed. In the summer of 1810 a so-called "movement for self-government" started at Bayou Sara and at Baton Rouge, where nine-tenths of the inhabitants were Americans. The leaders took pains to assure the Spanish Commandant that their motives were unimpeachable: nothing should be done which would in any wise conflict with the authority of their "loved and worthy sovereign, Don Ferdinand VII." They wished to relieve the people of the abuses under which they were suffering, but all should be done in the name of the King. The Commandant, De Lassus, was not without his suspicions of these patriotic gentlemen but he allowed himself to be swept along in the current. The several movements finally coalesced on the 25th of July in a convention near Baton Rouge, which declared itself "legally constituted to act in all cases of national concern . . . with the consent of the governor" and professed a desire "to promote the safety, honor, and happiness of our beloved king" as well as to rectify abuses in the province. It adjourned with the familiar Spanish salutation which must have sounded ironical to the helpless De Lassus, "May God preserve you many years!" Were these pious professions farcical? Or were they the sincere utterances of men who, like the patriots of 1776, were driven by the march of events out of an attitude of traditional loyalty to the King into open defence of his authority?

The Commandant was thus thrust into a position where his every movement would be watched with distrust. The pretext for further action was soon given. An intercepted letter revealed that DeLassus had written to Governor Folch for an armed force. That "act of perfidy" was enough to dissolve the bond between the convention and the Commandant. On the 23d of September, under cover of night, an armed force shouting "Hurrah! Washington!" overpowered the garrison of the fort at Baton Rouge, and three days later the convention declared the independence of West Florida, "appealing to the Supreme Ruler of the World" for the rectitude of their intentions. What their intentions were is clear enough. Before the ink was dry on their declaration of independence, they wrote to the Administration at Washington, asking for the immediate incorporation of West Florida into the Union. Here was the blessed consummation of years of diplomacy near at hand. President Madison had only to reach out his hand and pluck the ripe fruit; yet he hesitated from constitutional scruples. Where was the authority which warranted the use of the army and navy to hold territory beyond the bounds of the United States? Would not intervention, indeed, be equivalent to an unprovoked attack on Spain, a declaration of war? He set forth his doubts in a letter to Jefferson and hinted at the danger which in the end was to resolve all his doubts. Was there not grave danger that West Florida would pass into the hands of a third and dangerous party? The conduct of Great Britain showed a propensity to fish in troubled waters.

On the 27th of October, President Madison issued a proclamation authorizing Governor Claiborne to take possession of West Florida and to govern it as part of the Orleans Territory. He justified his action, which had no precedent in American diplomacy, by reasoning which was valid only if his fundamental premise was accepted. West Florida, he repeated, as a part of the Louisiana purchase belonged to the United States; but without abandoning its claim, the United States had hitherto suffered Spain to continue in possession, looking forward to a satisfactory adjustment by friendly negotiation. A crisis had arrived, however, which had subverted Spanish authority; and the failure of the United States to take the territory would threaten the interests of all parties and seriously disturb the tranquillity of the adjoining territories. In the hands of the United States, West Florida would "not cease to be a subject of fair and friendly negotiation." In his annual message President Madison spoke of the people of West Florida as having been "brought into the bosom of the American family," and two days later Governor Claiborne formally took possession of the country to the Pearl River. How territory which had thus been incorporated could still remain a subject of fair negotiation does not clearly appear, except on the supposition that Spain would go through the forms of a negotiation which could have but one outcome.

The enemies of the Administration seized eagerly upon the flaws in the President's logic, and pressed his defenders sorely in the closing session of the Eleventh Congress. Conspicuous among the champions of the Administration was young Henry Clay, then serving out the term of Senator Thurston of Kentucky who had resigned his office. This eloquent young lawyer, now in his thirty-third year, had been born and bred in the Old Dominion--a typical instance of the American boy who had nothing but his own head and hands wherewith to make his way in the world. He had a slender schooling, a much-abbreviated law education in a lawyer's office, and little enough of that intellectual discipline needed for leadership at the bar; yet he had a clever wit, an engaging personality, and a rare facility in speaking, and he capitalized these assets. He was practising law in Lexington, Kentucky, when he was appointed to the Senate.

What this persuasive Westerner had to say on the American title to West Florida was neither new nor convincing; but what he advocated as an American policy was both bold and challenging. "The eternal principles of self preservation" justified in his mind the occupation of West Florida, irrespective of any title. With Cuba and Florida in the possession of a foreign maritime power, the immense extent of country watered by streams entering the Gulf would be placed at the mercy of that power. Neglect the proffered boon and some nation profiting by this error would seize this southern frontier. It had been intimated that Great Britain might take sides with Spain to resist the occupation of Florida. To this covert threat Clay replied,

"Sir, is the time never to arrive, when we may manage our own affairs without the fear of insulting his Britannic Majesty? Is the rod of British power to be forever suspended over our heads? Does the President refuse to continue a correspondence with a minister, who violates the decorum belonging to his diplomatic character, by giving and deliberately repeating an affront to the whole nation? We are instantly menaced with the chastisement which English pride will not fail to inflict. Whether we assert our rights by sea, or attempt their maintenance by land--whithersoever we turn ourselves, this phantom incessantly pursues us. Already has it had too much influence on the councils of the nation. It contributed to the repeal of the embargo--that dishonorable repeal, which has so much tarnished the character of our government. Mr. President, I have before said on this floor, and now take occasion to remark, that I most sincerely desire peace and amity with England; that I even prefer an adjustment of all differences with her, before one with any other nation. But if she persists in a denial of justice to us, or if she avails herself of the occupation of West Florida, to commence war upon us, I trust and hope that all hearts will unite, in a bold and vigorous vindication of our rights.

"I am not, sir, in favour of cherishing the passion of conquest. But I must be permitted, in conclusion, to indulge the hope of seeing, ere long, the NEW United States (if you will allow me the expression) embracing, not only the old thirteen States, but the entire country east of the Mississippi, including East Florida, and some of the territories of the north of us also."

Conquest was not a familiar word in the vocabulary of James Madison, and he may well have prayed to be delivered from the hands of his friends, if this was to be the keynote of their defense of his policy in West Florida. Nevertheless, he was impelled in spite of himself in the direction of Clay's vision. If West Florida in the hands of an unfriendly power was a menace to the southern frontier, East Florida from the Perdido to the ocean was not less so. By the 3d of January, 1811, he was prepared to recommend secretly to Congress that he should be authorized to take temporary possession of East Florida, in case the local authorities should consent or a foreign power should attempt to occupy it. And Congress came promptly to his aid with the desired authorization.

Twelve months had now passed since the people of the several States had expressed a judgment at the polls by electing a new Congress. The Twelfth Congress was indeed new in more senses than one. Some seventy representatives took their seats for the first time, and fully half of the familiar faces were missing. Its first and most significant act, betraying a new spirit, was the choice as Speaker of Henry Clay, who had exchanged his seat in the Senate for the more stirring arena of the House. In all the history of the House there is only one other instance of the choice of a new member as Speaker. It was not merely a personal tribute to Clay but an endorsement of the forward-looking policy which he had so vigorously championed in the Senate. The temper of the House was bold and aggressive, and it saw its mood reflected in the mobile face of the young Kentuckian.

The Speaker of the House had hitherto followed English traditions, choosing rather to stand as an impartial moderator than to act as a legislative leader. For British traditions of any sort Clay had little respect. He was resolved to be the leader of the House, and if necessary to join his privileges as Speaker to his rights as a member, in order to shape the policies of Congress. Almost his first act as Speaker was to appoint to important committees those who shared his impatience with commercial restrictions as a means of coercing Great Britain. On the Committee on Foreign Relations--second to none in importance at this moment--he placed Peter B. Porter of New York, young John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Felix Grundy of Tennessee; the chairmanship of the Committee on Naval Affairs he gave to Langdon Cheves of South Carolina; and the chairmanship of the Committee on Military Affairs, to another South Carolinian, David Williams. There was nothing fortuitous in this selection of representatives from the South and Southwest for important committee posts. Like Clay himself, these young intrepid spirits were solicitous about the southern frontier--about the ultimate disposal of the Floridas; like Clay, they had lost faith in temporizing policies; like Clay, they were prepared for battle with the old adversary if necessary.

In the President's message of November 5, 1811, there was just one passage which suited the mood of this group of younger Republicans. After a recital of injuries at the hands of the British ministry, Madison wrote with unwonted vigor: "With this evidence of hostile inflexibility in trampling on rights which no independent nation can relinquish Congress will feel the duty of putting the United States into an armor and an attitude demanded by the crisis; and corresponding with the national spirit and expectations." It was this part of the message which the Committee on Foreign Relations took for the text of its report. The time had arrived, in the opinion of the committee, when forbearance ceased to be a virtue and when Congress must as a sacred duty "call forth the patriotism and resources of the country." Nor did the committee hesitate to point out the immediate steps to be taken if the country were to be put into a state of preparedness. Let the ranks of the regular army be filled and ten regiments added; let the President call for fifty thousand volunteers; let all available war-vessels be put in commission; and let merchant vessels arm in their own defense.

If these recommendations were translated into acts, they would carry the country appreciably nearer war; but the members of the committee were not inclined to shrink from the consequences. To a man they agreed that war was preferable to inglorious submission to continued outrages, and that the outcome of war would be positively advantageous. Porter, who represented the westernmost district of a State profoundly interested in the northern frontier, doubted not that Great Britain could be despoiled of her extensive provinces along the borders to the North. Grundy, speaking for the Southwest, contemplated with satisfaction the time when the British would be driven from the continent. "I feel anxious," he concluded, "not only to add the Floridas to the South, but the Canadas to the North of this Empire." Others, like Calhoun, who now made his entrance as a debater, refused to entertain these mercenary calculations. "Sir," exclaimed Calhoun, his deep-set eyes flashing, "I only know of one principle to make a nation great, to produce in this country not the form but the real spirit of union, and that is, to protect every citizen in the lawful pursuit of his business. . . Protection and patriotism are reciprocal."

But these young Republicans marched faster than the rank and file. Not so lightly were Jeffersonian traditions to be thrown aside. The old Republican prejudice against standing armies and seagoing navies still survived. Four weary months of discussion produced only two measures of military importance, one of which provided for the addition to the army of twenty-five thousand men enlisted for five years, and the other for the calling into service of fifty thousand state militia. The proposal of the naval committee to appropriate seven and a half million dollars to build a new navy was voted down; Gallatin's urgent appeal for new taxes fell upon deaf ears; and Congress proposed to meet the new military expenditure by the dubious expedient of a loan of eleven million dollars.

A hesitation which seemed fatal paralyzed all branches of the Federal Government in the spring months. Congress was obviously reluctant to follow the lead of the radicals who clamored for war with Great Britain. The President was unwilling to recommend a declaration of war, though all evidence points to the conclusion that he and his advisers believed war inevitable. The nation was divided in sentiment, the Federalists insisting with some plausibility that France was as great an offender as Great Britain and pointing to the recent captures of American merchantmen by French cruisers as evidence that the decrees had not been repealed. Even the President was impressed by these unfriendly acts and soberly discussed with his mentor at Monticello the possibility of war with both France and England. There was a moment in March, indeed, when he was disposed to listen to moderate Republicans who advised him to send a special mission to England as a last chance.

What were the considerations which fixed the mind of the nation and of Congress upon war with Great Britain? Merely to catalogue the accumulated grievances of a decade does not suffice. Nations do not arrive at decisions by mathematical computation of injuries received, but rather because of a sense of accumulated wrongs which may or may not be measured by losses in life and property. And this sense of wrongs is the more acute in proportion to the racial propinquity of the offender. The most bitter of all feuds are those between peoples of the same blood. It was just because the mother country from which Americans had won their independence was now denying the fruits of that independence that she became the object of attack. In two particulars was Great Britain offending and France not. The racial differences between French and American seamen were too conspicuous to countenance impressment into the navy of Napoleon. No injuries at the hands of France bore any similarity to the Chesapeake outrage. Nor did France menace the frontier and the frontier folk of the United States by collusion with the Indians.

To suppose that the settlers beyond the Alleghanies were eager to fight Great Britain solely for "free trade and sailors' rights" is to assume a stronger consciousness of national unity than existed anywhere in the United States at this time. These western pioneers had stronger and more immediate motives for a reckoning with the old adversary. Their occupation of the Northwest had been hindered at every turn by the red man, who, they believed, had been sustained in his resistance directly by British traders and indirectly by the British Government. Documents now abundantly prove that the suspicion was justified. The key to the early history of the northwestern frontier is the fur trade. It was for this lucrative traffic that England retained so long the western posts which she had agreed to surrender by the Peace of Paris. Out of the region between the Illinois, the Wabash, the Ohio, and Lake Erie, pelts had been shipped year after year to the value annually of some 100,000 pounds, in return for the products of British looms and forges. It was the constant aim of the British trader in the Northwest to secure "the exclusive advantages of a valuable trade during Peace and the zealous assistance of brave and useful auxiliaries in time of War." To dispossess the redskin of his lands and to wrest the fur trade from British control was the equally constant desire of every full-blooded Western American. Henry Clay voiced this desire when he exclaimed in the speech already quoted, "The conquest of Canada is in your power . . . . Is it nothing to extinguish the torch that lights up savage warfare? Is it nothing to acquire the entire fur-trade connected with that country, and to destroy the temptation and opportunity of violating your revenue and other laws?"[*]

[* A memorial of the fur traders of Canada to the Secretary of State for War and Colonies (1814), printed as Appendix N to Davidson's "The North West Company," throws much light on this obscure feature of Western history. See also an article on "The Insurgents of 1811," in the American Historical Association "Report" (1911) by D. R. Anderson.]

The Twelfth Congress had met under the shadow of an impending catastrophe in the Northwest. Reports from all sources pointed to an Indian war of considerable magnitude. Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet had formed an Indian confederacy which was believed to embrace not merely the tribes of the Northwest but also the Creeks and Seminoles of the Gulf region. Persistent rumors strengthened long-nourished suspicions and connected this Indian unrest with the British agents on the Canadian border. In the event of war, so it was said, the British paymasters would let the redskins loose to massacre helpless women and children. Old men retold the outrages of these savage fiends during the War of Independence.

On the 7th of November--three days after the assembling of Congress--Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory encountered the Indians of Tecumseh's confederation at Tippecanoe and by a costly but decisive victory crushed the hopes of their chieftains. As the news of these events drifted into Washington, it colored perceptibly the minds of those who doubted whether Great Britain or France were the greater offender. Grundy, who had seen three brothers killed by Indians and his mother reduced from opulence to poverty in a single night, spoke passionately of that power which was taking every "opportunity of intriguing with our Indian neighbors and setting on the ruthless savages to tomahawk our women and children." "War," he exclaimed, "is not to commence by sea or land, it is already begun, and some of the richest blood of our country has been shed."

Still the President hesitated to lead. On the 3lst of March, to be sure, he suffered Monroe to tell a committee of the House that he thought war should be declared before Congress adjourned and that he was willing to recommend an embargo if Congress would agree; but after an embargo for ninety days had been declared on the 4th of April, he told the British Minister that it was not, could not be considered, a war measure. He still waited for Congress to shoulder the responsibility of declaring war. Why did he hesitate? Was he aware of the woeful state of unpreparedness everywhere apparent and was he therefore desirous of delay? Some color is given to this excuse by his efforts to persuade Congress to create two assistant secretaryships of war. Or was he conscious of his own inability to play the role of War-President?

The personal question which thrust itself upon Madison at this time was, indeed, whether he would have a second term of office. An old story, often told by his detractors, recounts a dramatic incident which is said to have occurred, just as the congressional caucus of the party was about to meet. A committee of Republican Congressmen headed by Mr. Speaker Clay waited upon the President to tell him, that if he wished a renomination, he must agree to recommend a declaration of war. The story has never been corroborated; and the dramatic interview probably never occurred; yet the President knew, as every one knew, that his renomination was possible only with the support of the war party. When he accepted the nomination from the Republican caucus on the 18th of May, he tacitly pledged himself to acquiesce in the plans of the war-hawks. Some days later an authentic interview did take place between the President and a deputation of Congressmen headed by the Speaker, in the course of which the President was assured of the support of Congress if he would recommend a declaration. Subsequent events point to a complete understanding.

Clay now used all the latent powers of his office to aid the war party. Even John Randolph, ever a thorn in the side of the party, was made to wince. On the 9th of May, Randolph undertook to address the House on the declaration of war which, he had been credibly informed, was imminent. He was called to order by a member because no motion was before the House. He protested that his remarks were prefatory to a motion. The Speaker ruled that he must first make a motion. "My proposition is," responded Randolph sullenly, "that it is not expedient at this time to resort to a war against Great Britain." "Is the motion seconded?" asked the Speaker. Randolph protested that a second was not needed and appealed from the decision of the chair. Then, when the House sustained the Speaker, Randolph, having found a seconder, once more began to address the House. Again he was called to order; the House must first vote to consider the motion. Randolph was beside himself with rage. The last vestige of liberty of speech was vanishing, he declared. But Clay was imperturbable. The question of consideration was put and lost. Randolph had found his master.

On the 1st of June the President sent to Congress what is usually denominated a war message; yet it contained no positive recommendation of war. "Congress must decide," said the President, "whether the United States shall continue passive" or oppose force to force. Prefaced to this impotent conclusion was a long recital of "progressive usurpations" and "accumulating wrongs"--a recital which had become so familiar in state papers as almost to lose its power to provoke popular resentment. It was significant, however, that the President put in the forefront of his catalogue of wrongs the impressment of American sailors on the high seas. No indignity touched national pride so keenly and none so clearly differentiated Great Britain from France as the national enemy. Almost equally provocative was the harassing of incoming and outgoing vessels by British cruisers which hovered off the coasts and even committed depredations within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Pretended blockades without an adequate force was a third charge against the British Government, and closely connected with it that "sweeping system of blockades, under the name of orders-in-council," against which two Republican Administrations had struggled in vain.

There was in the count not an item, indeed, which could not have been charged against Great Britain in the fall of 1807, when the public clamored for war after the Chesapeake outrage. Four long years had been spent in testing the efficacy of commercial restrictions, and the country was if anything less prepared for the alternative. When President Madison penned this message he was, in fact, making public avowal of the breakdown of a great Jeffersonian principle. Peaceful coercion was proved to be an idle dream.

So well advised was the Committee on Foreign Relations to which the President's message was referred that it could present a long report two days later, again reviewing the case against the adversary in great detail. "The contest which is now forced on the United States," it concluded, "is radically a contest for their sovereignty and independency." There was now no other alternative than an immediate appeal to arms. On the same day Calhoun introduced a bill declaring war against Great Britain; and on the 4th of June in secret session the war party mustered by the Speaker bore down all opposition and carried the bill by a vote of 79 to 49. On the 7th of June the Senate followed the House by the close vote of 19 to 14; and on the following day the President promptly signed the bill which marked the end of an epoch.

It is one of the bitterest ironies in history that just twenty-four hours before war was declared at Washington, the new Ministry at Westminster announced its intention of immediately suspending the orders-in-council. Had President Madison yielded to those moderates who advised him in April to send a minister to England, he might have been apprized of that gradual change in public opinion which was slowly undermining the authority of Spencer Perceval's ministry and commercial system. He had only to wait a little longer to score the greatest diplomatic triumph of his generation; but fate willed otherwise. No ocean cable flashed the news of the abrupt change which followed the tragic assassination of Perceval and the formation of a new ministry. When the slow-moving packets brought the tidings, war had begun.


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