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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
President Madison Under Fire
by Johnson, Allen


The dire calamity which Jefferson and his colleagues had for ten years bent all their energies to avert had now befallen the young Republic. War, with all its train of attendant evils, stalked upon the stage, and was about to test the hearts of pacifist and war-hawk alike. But nothing marked off the younger Republicans more sharply from the generation to which Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin belonged than the positive relief with which they hailed this break with Jeffersonian tradition. This attitude was something quite different from the usual intrepidity of youth in the face of danger; it was bottomed upon the conviction which Clay expressed when he answered the question, "What are we to gain by the war?" by saying, "What are we not to lose by peace? Commerce, character, a nation's best treasure, honor!" Calhoun had reached the same conclusion. The restrictive system as a means of resistance and of obtaining redress for wrongs, he declared to be unsuited to the genius of the American people. It required the most arbitrary laws; it rendered government odious; it bred discontent. War, on the other hand, strengthened the national character, fed the flame of patriotism, and perfected the organization of government. "Sir," he exclaimed, "I would prefer a single Victory over the enemy by sea or land to all the good we shall ever derive from the continuation of the non-importation act!" The issue was thus squarely faced: the alternative to peaceable coercion was now to be given a trial.

Scarcely less remarkable was the buoyant spirit with which these young Republicans faced the exigencies of war. Defeat was not to be found in their vocabulary. Clay pictured in fervent rhetoric a victorious army dictating the terms of peace at Quebec or at Halifax; Calhoun scouted the suggestion of unpreparedness, declaring that in four weeks after the declaration of war the whole of Upper and part of Lower Canada would be in our possession; and even soberer patriots believed that the conquest of Canada was only a matter of marching across the frontier to Montreal or Quebec. But for that matter older heads were not much wiser as prophets of military events. Even Jefferson assured the President that he had never known a war entered into under more favorable auspices, and predicted that Great Britain would surely be stripped of all her possessions on this continent; while Monroe seems to have anticipated a short decisive war terminating in a satisfactory accommodation with England. As for the President, he averred many years later that while he knew the unprepared state of the country, "he esteemed it necessary to throw forward the flag of the country, sure that the people would press onward and defend it."

There is something at once humorous and pathetic in this self-portrait of Madison throwing forward the flag of his country and summoning his legions to follow on. Never was a man called to lead in war who had so little of the martial in his character, and yet so earnest a purpose to rise to the emergency. An observer describes him, the day after war was declared, "visiting in person--a thing never known before--all the offices of the Departments of War and the Navy, stimulating everything in a manner worthy of a little commander-in-chief, with his little round hat and huge cockade." Stimulation was certainly needed in these two departments as events proved, but attention to petty details which should have been watched by subordinates is not the mark of a great commander. Jefferson afterward consoled Madison for the defeat of his armies by writing: "All you can do is to order--execution must depend on others and failures be imputed to them alone." Jefferson failed to perceive what Madison seems always to have forgotten, that a commander-in-chief who appoints and may remove his subordinates can never escape responsibility for their failures. The President's first duty was not to stimulate the performance of routine in the departments but to make sure of the competence of the executive heads of those departments.

William Eustis of Massachusetts, Secretary of War, was not without some little military experience, having served as a surgeon in the Revolutionary army, but he lacked every qualification for the onerous task before him. Senator Crawford of Georgia wrote to Monroe caustically that Eustis should have been forming general and comprehensive arrangements for the organization of the troops and for the prosecution of campaigns, instead of consuming his time reading advertisements of petty retailing merchants, to find where he could purchase one hundred shoes or two hundred hats. Of Paul Hamilton, the Secretary of Navy, even less could be expected, for he seems to have had absolutely no experience to qualify him for the post. Senator Crawford intimated that in instructing his naval officers Hamilton impressed upon them the desirability of keeping their superiors supplied with pineapples and other tropical fruits -an ill-natured comment which, true or not, gives us the measure of the man. Both Monroe and Gallatin shared the prevailing estimate of the Secretaries of War and of the Navy and expressed themselves without reserve to Jefferson; but the President with characteristic indecision hesitated to purge his Cabinet of these two incompetents, and for his want of decision he paid dearly.

The President had just left the Capital for his country place at Montpelier toward the end of August, when the news came that General William Hull, who had been ordered to invade Upper Canada and begin the military promenade to Quebec, had surrendered Detroit and his entire army without firing a gun. It was a crushing disaster and a well-deserved rebuke for the Administration, for whether the fault was Hull's or Eustis's, the President had to shoulder the responsibility. His first thought was to retrieve the defeat by commissioning Monroe to command a fresh army for the capture of Detroit; but this proposal which appealed strongly to Monroe had to be put aside--fortunately for all concerned, for Monroe's desire for military glory was probably not equalled by his capacity as a commander and the western campaign proved incomparably more difficult than wiseacres at Washington imagined.

What was needed, indeed, was not merely able commanders in the field, though they were difficult enough to find. There was much truth in Jefferson's naive remark to Madison: "The creator has not thought proper to mark those on the forehead who are of the stuff to make good generals. We are first, therefore, to seek them, blindfold, and then let them learn the trade at the expense of great losses." But neither seems to have comprehended that their opposition to military preparedness had caused this dearth of talent and was now forcing the Administration to select blindfold. More pressing even than the need of tacticians was the need of organizers of victory. The utter failure of the Niagara campaign vacated the office of Secretary of War; and with Eustis retired also the Secretary of the Navy. Monroe took over the duties of the one temporarily, and William Jones, a shipowner of Philadelphia, succeeded Hamilton.

If the President seriously intended to make Monroe Secretary of War and the head of the General Staff, he speedily discovered that he was powerless to do so. The Republican leaders in New York felt too keenly Josiah Quincy's taunt about a despotic Cabinet "composed, to all efficient purposes, of two Virginians and a foreigner" to permit Monroe to absorb two cabinet posts. To appease this jealousy of Virginia, Madison made an appointment which very nearly shipwrecked his Administration: he invited General John Armstrong of New York to become Secretary of War. Whatever may be said of Armstrong's qualifications for the post, his presence in the Cabinet was most inadvisable, for he did not and could not inspire the personal confidence of either Gallatin or Monroe. Once in office, he turned Monroe into a relentless enemy and fairly drove Gallatin out of office in disgust by appointing his old enemy, William Duane, editor of the Aurora, to the post of Adjutant-General. "And Armstrong!"--said Dallas who subsequently as Secretary of War knew whereof he spoke --"he was the devil from the beginning, is now, and ever will be!"

The man of clearest vision in these unhappy months of 1812 was undoubtedly Albert Gallatin. The defects of Madison as a War-President he had long foreseen; the need of reorganizing the Executive Departments he had pointed out as soon as war became inevitable; and the problem of financing the war he had attacked farsightedly, fearlessly, and without regard to political consistency. No one watched the approach of hostilities with a bitterer sense of blasted hopes. For ten years he had labored to limit expenditures, sacrificing even the military and naval establishments, that the people might be spared the burden of needless taxes;--and within this decade he had also scaled down the national debt one-half, so that posterity might not be saddled with burdens not of its own choosing. And now war threatened to undo his work. The young republic was after all not to lead its own life, realize a unique destiny, but to tread the old well-worn path of war, armaments, and high-handed government. Well, he would save what he could, do his best to avert "perpetual taxation, military establishments, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions."

If Gallatin at first underrated the probable revenue for war purposes, he speedily confessed his error and set before Congress inexorably the necessity for new taxes-aye, even for an internal tax, which he had once denounced as loudly as any Republican. For more than a year after the declaration of war, Congress was deaf to pleas for new sources of revenue; and it was not, indeed, until the last year of the war that it voted the taxes which in the long run could alone support the public credit. Meantime, facing a depleted Treasury, Gallatin found himself reduced to a mere "dealer of loans"--a position utterly abhorrent to him. Even his efforts to place the loans which Congress authorized must have failed but for the timely aid of three men whom Quincy would have contemptuously termed foreigners, for all like Gallatin were foreign-born--Astor, Girard, and Parish. Utterly weary of his thankless job, Gallatin seized upon the opportunity afforded by the Russian offer of mediation to leave the Cabinet and perhaps to end the war by a diplomatic stroke. He asked and received an appointment as one of the three American commissioners.

If Madison really believed that the people of the United States would unitedly press onward and defend the flag when once he had thrown it forward, he must have been strangely insensitive to the disaffection in New England. Perhaps, like Jefferson in the days of the embargo, he mistook the spirit of this opposition, thinking that it was largely partisan clamor which could safely be disregarded. What neither of these Virginians appreciated was the peculiar fanatical and sectional character of this Federalist opposition, and the extremes to which it would go. Yet abundant evidence lay before their eyes. Thirty-four Federalist members of the House, nearly all from New England, issued an address to their constituents bitterly arraigning the Administration and deploring the declaration of war; the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, following this example, published another address, denouncing the war as a wanton sacrifice of the best interests of the people and imploring all good citizens to meet in town and county assemblies to protest and to resolve not to volunteer except for a defensive war; and a meeting of citizens of Rockingham County, New Hampshire, adopted a memorial drafted by young Daniel Webster, which hinted that the separation of the States--"an event fraught with incalculable evils"--might sometime occur on just such an occasion as this. Town after town, and county after county, took up the hue and cry, keeping well within the limits of constitutional opposition, it is true, but weakening the arm of the Government just when it should have struck the enemy effective blows.

Nor was the President without enemies in his own political household. The Republicans of New York, always lukewarm in their support of the Virginia Dynasty, were now bent upon preventing his reelection. They found a shrewd and not overscrupulous leader in DeWitt Clinton and an adroit campaign manager in Martin Van Buren. Both belonged to that school of New York politicians of which Burr had been master. Anything to beat Madison was their cry. To this end they were willing to condemn the war-policy, to promise a vigorous prosecution of the war, and even to negotiate for peace. What made this division in the ranks of the Republicans so serious was the willingness of the New England Federalists to make common cause with Clinton. In September a convention of Federalists endorsed his nomination for the Presidency.

Under the weight of accumulating disasters, military and political, it seemed as though Madison must go down in defeat. Every New England State but Vermont cast its electoral votes for Clinton; all the Middle States but Pennsylvania also supported him; and Maryland divided its vote. Only the steadiness of the Southern Republicans and of Pennsylvania saved Madison; a change of twenty electoral votes would have ended the Virginia Dynasty.[*] Now at least Madison must have realized the poignant truth which the Federalists were never tired of repeating: he had entered upon the war as President of a divided people.

[* In the electoral vote Madison received 128; Clinton, 89.]

Only a few months' experience was needed to convince the military authorities at Washington that the war must be fought mainly by volunteers. Every military consideration derived from American history warned against this policy, it is true, but neither Congress nor the people would entertain for an instant the thought of conscription. Only with great reluctance and under pressure had Congress voted to increase the regular army and to authorize the President to raise fifty thousand volunteers. The results of this legislation were disappointing, not to say humiliating. The conditions of enlistment were not such as to encourage recruiting; and even when the pay had been increased and the term of service shortened, few able-bodied citizens would respond. If any such desired to serve their country, they enrolled in the State militia which the President had been authorized to call into active service for six months.

In default of a well-disciplined regular army and an adequate volunteer force, the Administration was forced more and more to depend upon such quotas of militia as the States would supply. How precarious was the hold of the national Government upon the State forces, appeared in the first months of the war. When called upon to supply troops to relieve the regulars in the coast defenses, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut flatly refused, holding that the commanders of the State militia, and not the President, had the power to decide when exigencies demanded the use of the militia in the service of the United States. In his annual message Madison termed this "a novel and unfortunate exposition" of the Constitution, and he pointed out--what indeed was sufficiently obvious--that if the authority of the United States could be thus frustrated during actual war, "they are not one nation for the purpose most of all requiring it." But what was the President to do? Even if he, James Madison, author of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, could so forget his political creed as to conceive of coercing a sovereign state, where was the army which would do his bidding? The President was the victim of his own political theory.

These bitter revelations of 1812--the disaffection of New England, the incapacity of two of his secretaries, the disasters of his staff officers on the frontier, the slow recruiting, the defiance of Massachusetts and Connecticut--almost crushed the President. Never physically robust, he succumbed to an insidious intermittent fever in June and was confined to his bed for weeks. So serious was his condition that Mrs. Madison was in despair and scarcely left his side for five long weeks. "Even now," she wrote to Mrs. Gallatin, at the end of July, "I watch over him as I would an infant, so precarious is his convalescence." The rumor spread that he was not likely to survive, and politicians in Washington began to speculate on the succession to the Presidency.

But now and then a ray of hope shot through the gloom pervading the White House and Capitol. The stirring victory of the Constitution over the Guerriere in August, 1812, had almost taken the sting out of Hull's surrender at Detroit, and other victories at sea followed, glorious in the annals of American naval warfare, though without decisive influence on the outcome of the war. Of much greater significance was Perry's victory on Lake Erie in September, 1813, which opened the way to the invasion of Canada. This brilliant combat followed by the Battle of the Thames cheered the President in his slow convalescence. Encouraging, too, were the exploits of American privateers in British waters, but none of these events seemed likely to hasten the end of the war. Great Britain had already declined the Russian offer of mediation.

Last day but one of the year 1813 a British schooner, the Bramble, came into the port of Annapolis bearing an important official letter from Lord Castlereagh to the Secretary of State. With what eager and anxious hands Monroe broke the seal of this letter may be readily imagined. It might contain assurances of a desire for peace; it might indefinitely prolong the war. In truth the letter pointed both ways. Castlereagh had declined to accept the good offices of Russia, but he was prepared to begin direct negotiations for peace. Meantime the war must go on--with the chances favoring British arms, for the Bramble had also brought the alarming news of Napoleon's defeat on the plains of Leipzig. Now for the first time Great Britain could concentrate all her efforts upon the campaign in North America. No wonder the President accepted Castlereagh's offer with alacrity. To the three commissioners sent to Russia, he added Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell and bade them Godspeed while he nerved himself to meet the crucial year of the war.

Had the President been fully apprized of the elaborate plans of the British War Office, his anxieties would have been multiplied many times. For what resources had the Government to meet invasion on three frontiers? The Treasury was again depleted; new loans brought in insufficient funds to meet current expenses; recruiting was slack because the Government could not compete with the larger bounties offered by the States; by summer the number of effective regular troops was only twenty-seven thousand all told. With this slender force, supplemented by State levies, the military authorities were asked to repel invasion. The Administration had not yet drunk the bitter dregs of the cup of humiliation.

That some part of the invading British forces might be detailed to attack the Capital was vaguely divined by the President and his Cabinet; but no adequate measures had been taken for the defense of the city when, on a fatal August day, the British army marched upon it. The humiliating story of the battle of Bladensburg has been told elsewhere. The disorganized mob which had been hastily assembled to check the advance of the British was utterly routed almost under the eyes of the President, who with feelings not easily described found himself obliged to join the troops fleeing through the city. No personal humiliation was spared the President and his family. Dolly Madison, never once doubting that the noise of battle which reached the White House meant an American victory, stayed calmly indoors until the rush of troops warned her of danger. She and her friends were then swept along in the general rout. She was forced to leave her personal effects behind, but her presence of mind saved one treasure in the White House--a large portrait of General Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. That priceless portrait and the plate were all that survived. The fleeing militiamen had presence of mind enough to save a large quantity of the wine by drinking it, and what was left, together with the dinner on the table, was consumed by Admiral Cockburn and his staff. By nightfall the White House, the Treasury, and the War Office were in flames, and only a severe thunderstorm checked the conflagration.[*]

[* Before passing judgment on the conduct of British officers and men in the capital, the reader should recall the equally indefensible outrages committed by American troops under General Dearborn in 1813, when the Houses of Parliament and other public buildings at York (Toronto) were pillaged and burned. See Kingsford's "History of Canada," VIII, pp. 259-61.]

Heartsick and utterly weary, the President crossed the Potomac at about six o'clock in the evening and started westward in a carriage toward Montpelier. He had been in the saddle since early morning and was nearly spent. To fatigue was added humiliation, for he was forced to travel with a crowd of embittered fugitives and sleep in a forlorn house by the wayside. Next morning he overtook Mrs. Madison at an inn some sixteen miles from the Capital. Here they passed another day of humiliation, for refugees who had followed the same line of flight reviled the President for betraying them and the city. At midnight, alarmed at a report that the British were approaching, the President fled to another miserable refuge deeper in the Virginia woods. This fear of capture was quite unfounded, however, for the British troops had already evacuated the city and were marching in the opposite direction.

Two days later the President returned to the capital to collect his Cabinet and repair his shattered Government. He found public sentiment hot against the Administration for having failed to protect the city. He had even to fear personal violence, but he remained "tranquil as usual . . . though much distressed by the dreadful event which had taken place." He was still more distressed, however, by the insistent popular clamor for a victim for punishment. All fingers pointed at Armstrong as the man responsible for the capture of the city. Armstrong offered to resign at once, but the President in distress would not hear of resignation. He would advise only "a temporary retirement" from the city to placate the inhabitants. So Armstrong departed, but by the time he reached Baltimore he realized the impossibility of his situation and sent his resignation to the President. The victim had been offered up. At his own request Monroe was now made Secretary of War, though he continued also to discharge the not very heavy duties of the State Department.

It was a disillusioned group of Congressmen who gathered in September, 1814, in special session at the President's call. Among those who gazed sadly at the charred ruins of the Capitol were Calhoun, Cheves, and Grundy, whose voices had been loud for war and who had pictured their armies overrunning the British possessions. Clay was at this moment endeavoring to avert a humiliating surrender of American claims at Ghent. To the sting of defeated hopes was added physical discomfort. The only public building which had escaped the general conflagration was the Post and Patent Office. In these cramped quarters the two houses awaited the President's message.

A visitor from another planet would have been strangely puzzled to make the President's words tally with the havoc wrought by the enemy on every side. A series of achievements had given new luster to the American arms; "the pride of our naval arms had been amply supported"; the American people had "rushed with enthusiasm to the scenes where danger and duty call." Not a syllable about the disaster at Washington! Not a word about the withdrawal of the Connecticut militia from national service, and the refusal of the Governor of Vermont to call out the militia just at the moment when Sir George Prevost began his invasion of New York; not a word about the general suspension of specie payment by all banks outside of New England; not a word about the failure of the last loan and the imminent bankruptcy of the Government. Only a single sentence betrayed the anxiety which was gnawing Madison's heart: "It is not to be disguised that the situation of our country calls for its greatest efforts." What the situation demanded, he left his secretaries to say.

The new Secretary of War seemed to be the one member of the Administration who was prepared to grapple with reality and who had the courage of his convictions. While Jefferson was warning him that it was nonsense to talk about a regular army, Monroe told Congress flatly that no reliance could be pled in the militia and that a permanent force of one hundred thousand men must be raised--raised by conscription if necessary. Throwing Virginian and Jeffersonian principles to the winds, he affirmed the constitutional right of Congress to draft citizens. The educational value of war must have been very great to bring Monroe to this conclusion, but Congress had not traveled so far. One by one Monroe's alternative plans were laid aside; and the country, like a rudderless ship, drifted on.

An insuperable obstacle, indeed, prevented the establishment of any efficient national army at this time. Every plan encountered ultimately the inexorable fact that the Treasury was practically empty and the credit of the Government gone. Secretary Campbell's report was a confession of failure to sustain public credit. Some seventy-four millions would be needed to carry the existing civil and military establishments for another year, and of this sum, vast indeed in those days, only twenty-four millions were in sight. Where the remaining fifty millions were to be found, the Secretary could not say. With this admission of incompetence Campbell resigned from office. On the 9th of November his successor, A. J. Dallas, notified holders of government securities at Boston that the Treasury could not meet its obligations.

It was at this crisis, when bankruptcy stared the Government in the face, that the Legislature of Massachusetts appointed delegates to confer with delegates from other New England legislatures on their common grievances and dangers and to devise means of security and defense. The Legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island responded promptly by appointing delegates to meet at Hartford on the 15th of December; and the proposed convention seemed to receive popular indorsement in the congressional elections, for with but two exceptions all the Congressmen chosen were Federalists. Hot-heads were discussing without any attempt at concealment the possibility of reconstructing the Federal Union. A new union of the good old Thirteen States on terms set by New England was believed to be well within the bounds of possibility. News-sheets referred enthusiastically to the erection of a new Federal edifice which should exclude the Western States. Little wonder that the harassed President in distant Washington was obsessed with the idea that New England was on the verge of secession.

William Wirt who visited Washington at this time has left a vivid picture of ruin and desolation:

"I went to look at the ruins of the President's house. The rooms which you saw so richly furnished, exhibited nothing but unroofed naked walls, cracked, defaced, and blackened with fire. I cannot tell you what I felt as I walked amongst them . . . . I called on the President. He looks miserably shattered and wobegone. In short, he looked heartbroken. His mind is full of the New England sedition. He introduced the subject, and continued to press it--painful as it obviously was to him. I denied the probability, even the possibility that the yeomanry of the North could be induced to place themselves under the power and protection of England, and diverted the conversation to another topic; but he took the first opportunity to return to it, and convinced me that his heart and mind were painfully full of the subject."

What added to the President's misgivings was the secrecy in which the members of the Hartford Convention shrouded their deliberations. An atmosphere of conspiracy seemed to envelop all their proceedings. That the "deliverance of New England" was at hand was loudly proclaimed by the Federalist press. A reputable Boston news-sheet advised the President to procure a faster horse than he had mounted at Bladensburg, if he would escape the swift vengeance of New England.

The report of the Hartford Convention seemed hardly commensurate with the fears of the President or with the windy boasts of the Federalist press. It arraigned the Administration in scathing language, to be sure, but it did not advise secession. "The multiplied abuses of bad administrations" did not yet justify a severance of the Union, especially in a time of war. The manifest defects of the Constitution were not incurable; yet the infractions of the Constitution by the National Government had been so deliberate, dangerous, and palpable as to put the liberties of the people in jeopardy and to constrain the several States to interpose their authority to protect their citizens. The legislatures of the several States were advised to adopt measures to protect their citizens against such unconstitutional acts of Congress as conscription and to concert some arrangement with the Government at Washington, whereby they jointly or separately might undertake their own defense, and retain a reasonable share of the proceeds of Federal taxation for that purpose. To remedy the defects of the Constitution seven amendments were proposed, all of which had their origin in sectional hostility to the ascendancy of Virginia and to the growing power of the New West. The last of these proposals was a shot at Madison and Virginia: "nor shall the President be elected from the same State two terms in succession." And finally, should these applications of the States for permission to arm in their own defense be ignored, then and in the event that peace should not be concluded, another convention should be summoned "with such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require."

Massachusetts, under Federalist control, acted promptly upon these suggestions. Three commissioners were dispatched to Washington to effect the desired arrangements for the defense of the State. The progress of these "three ambassadors," as they styled themselves, was followed with curiosity if not with apprehension. In Federalist circles there was a general belief that an explosion was at hand. A disaster at New Orleans, which was now threatened by a British fleet and army, would force Madison to resign or to conclude peace. But on the road to Washington, the ambassadors learned to their surprise that General Andrew Jackson had decisively repulsed the British before New Orleans, on the 8th of January, and on reaching the Capital they were met by the news that a treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent. Their cause was not only discredited but made ridiculous. They and their mission were forgotten as the tension of war times relaxed. The Virginia Dynasty was not to end with James Madison.

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