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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty by Allen Johnson

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be a revenue district with Fort Stoddert as the port of entry.
But the mischief had been done and no constructive interpretation
of the act by the President could efface the impression first
made upon the mind of Yrujo. Congress had meant to appropriate
West Florida and the President had suffered the bill to become

* The italics are President Jefferson's.

Nor was Pinckney's conduct at Madrid likely to make Monroe's
mission easier. Two years before, in 1802, he had negotiated a
convention by which Spain agreed to pay indemnity for
depredations committed by her cruisers in the late war between
France and the United States. This convention had been ratified
somewhat tardily by the Senate and now waited on the pleasure of
the Spanish Government. Pinckney was instructed to press for the
ratification by Spain, which was taken for granted; but he was
explicitly warned to leave the matter of the Florida claims to
Monroe. When he presented the demands of his Government to
Cevallos, the Foreign Minister, he was met in turn with a demand
for explanations. What, pray, did his Government mean by this
act? To Pinckney's astonishment, he was confronted with a copy of
the Mobile Act, which Yrujo had forwarded. The South Carolinian
replied, in a tone that was not calculated to soothe ruffled
feelings, that he had already been advised that West Florida was
included in the Louisiana purchase and had so reported to
Cevallos. He urged that the two subjects be kept separate and
begged His Excellency to have confidence in the honor and justice
of the United States. Delays followed until Cevallos finally,
declared sharply that the treaty would be ratified only on
several conditions, one of which was that the Mobile Act should
be revoked. Pinckney then threw discretion to the winds and
announced that he would ask for his passports; but his bluster
did not change Spanish policy, and he dared not carry out his

It was under these circumstances that Monroe arrived in Madrid on
his difficult mission. He was charged with the delicate task of
persuading a Government whose pride had been touched to the quick
to ratify the claims convention, to agree to a commission to
adjudicate other claims which it had refused to recognize, to
yield West Florida as a part of the Louisiana purchase, and to
accept two million dollars for the rest of Florida east of the
Perdido River. In preparing these extraordinary instructions, the
Secretary of State labored under the hallucination that Spain, on
the verge of war with England, would pay handsomely for the
friendship of the United States, quite forgetting that the real
master of Spain was at Paris.

The story of Monroe's five weary months in Spain may be briefly
told. He was in the unstrategic position of one who asks for
everything and can concede nothing. Only one consideration could
probably have forced the Spanish Government to yield, and that
was fear. Spain had now declared war upon England and might
reasonably be supposed to prefer a solid accommodation with the
United States, as Madison intimated, rather than add to the
number of her foes. But Cevallos exhibited no signs of fear; on
the contrary he professed an amiable willingness to discuss every
point at great length. Every effort on the part of the American
to reach a conclusion was adroitly eluded. It was a game in which
the Spaniard had no equal. At last, when indubitable assurances
came to Monroe from Paris that Napoleon would not suffer Spain to
make the slightest concession either in the matter of spoliation
claims or any other claims, and that, in the event of a break
between the United States and Spain, he would surely take the
part of Spain, Monroe abandoned the game and asked for his
passports. Late in May he returned to Paris, where he joined with
General Armstrong, who had succeeded Livingston, in urging upon
the Administration the advisability of seizing Texas, leaving
West Florida alone for the present.

Months of vacillation followed the failure of Monroe's mission.
The President could not shake off his obsession, and yet he
lacked the resolution to employ force to take either Texas, which
he did not want but was entitled to, or West Florida which he
ardently desired but whose title was in dispute. It was not until
November of the following year (1805) that the Administration
determined on a definite policy. In a meeting of the Cabinet "I
proposed," Jefferson recorded in a memorandum, "we should address
ourselves to France, informing her it was a last effort at
amicable settlement with Spain and offer to her, or through her,"
a sum not to exceed five million dollars for the Floridas. The
chief obstacle in the way of this programme was the uncertain
mood of Congress, for a vote of credit was necessary and Congress
might not take kindly to Napoleon as intermediary. Jefferson then
set to work to draft a message which would "alarm the fears of
Spain by a vigorous language, in order to induce her to join us
in appealing to the interference of the Emperor."

The message sent to Congress alluded briefly to the negotiations
with Spain and pointed out the unsatisfactory relations which
still obtained. Spain had shown herself unwilling to adjust
claims or the boundaries of Louisiana; her depredations on
American commerce had been renewed; arbitrary duties and
vexatious searches continued to obstruct American shipping on the
Mobile; inroads had been made on American territory; Spanish
officers and soldiers had seized the property of American
citizens. It was hoped that Spain would view these injuries in
their proper light; if not, then the United States "must join in
the unprofitable contest of trying which party can do the other
the most harm. Some of these injuries may perhaps admit a
peaceable remedy. Where that is competent, it is always the most
desirable. But some of them are of a nature to be met by force
only, and all of them may lead to it."

Coming from the pen of a President who had declared that peace
was his passion, these belligerent words caused some bewilderment
but, on the whole, very considerable satisfaction in Republican
circles, where the possibility of rupture had been freely
discussed. The people of the Southwest took the President at his
word and looked forward with enthusiasm to a war which would
surely overthrow Spanish rule in the Floridas and yield the
coveted lands along the Gulf of Mexico. The country awaited with
eagerness those further details which the President had promised
to set forth in another message. These were felt to be historic
moments full of dramatic possibilities.

Three days later, behind closed doors, Congress listened to the
special message which was to put the nation to the supreme test.
Alas for those who had expected a trumpet call to battle. Never
was a state paper better calculated to wither martial spirit. In
dull fashion it recounted the events of Monroe's unlucky mission
and announced the advance of Spanish forces in the Southwest,
which, however, the President had not repelled, conceiving that
"Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of
changing our condition from peace to war." He had "barely
instructed" our forces "to patrol the borders actually delivered
to us." It soon dawned upon the dullest intelligence that the
President had not the slightest intention to recommend a
declaration of war. On the contrary, he was at pains to point out
the path to peace. There was reason to believe that France was
now disposed to lend her aid in effecting a settlement with
Spain, and "not a moment should be lost in availing ourselves of
it." "Formal war is not necessary, it is not probable it will
follow; but the protection of our citizens, the spirit and honor
of our country, require that force should be interposed to a
certain degree. It will probably contribute to advance the object
of peace."

After the warlike tone of the first message, this sounded like a
retreat. It outraged the feelings of the war party. It was, to
their minds, an anticlimax, a pusillanimous surrender. None was
angrier than John Randolph of Virginia, hitherto the leader of
the forces of the Administration in the House. He did not
hesitate to express his disgust with "this double set of opinions
and principles"; and his anger mounted when he learned that as
Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means he was expected to
propose and carry through an appropriation of two million dollars
for the purchase of Florida. Further interviews with the
President and the Secretary of State did not mollify him, for,
according to his version of these conversations, he was informed
that France would not permit Spain to adjust her differences with
the United States, which had, therefore, the alternative of
paying France handsomely or of facing a war with both France and
Spain. Then Randolph broke loose from all restraint and swore by
all his gods that he would not assume responsibility for
"delivering the public purse to the first cut-throat that
demanded it."

Randolph's opposition to the Florida programme was more than an
unpleasant episode in Jefferson's administration; it proved to be
the beginning of a revolt which was fatal to the President's
diplomacy, for Randolph passed rapidly from passive to active
opposition and fought the two-million dollar bill to the bitter
end. When the House finally outvoted him and his faction, soon to
be known as the "Quids," and the Senate had concurred, precious
weeks had been lost. Yet Madison must bear some share of blame
for the delay since, for some reason, never adequately explained,
he did not send instructions to Armstrong until four weeks after
the action of Congress. It was then too late to bait the master
of Europe. Just what had happened Armstrong could not ascertain;
but when Napoleon set out in October, 1806, on that fateful
campaign which crushed Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt, the chance
of acquiring Florida had passed.


With the transfer of Louisiana, the United States entered upon
its first experience in governing an alien civilized people. At
first view there is something incongruous in the attempt of the
young Republic, founded upon the consent of the governed, to rule
over a people whose land had been annexed without their consent
and whose preferences in the matter of government had never been
consulted. The incongruity appears the more striking when it is
recalled that the author of the Declaration of Independence was
now charged with the duty of appointing all officers, civil and
military, in the new territory. King George III had never ruled
more autocratically over any of his North American colonies than
President Jefferson over Louisiana through Governor William
Claiborne and General James Wilkinson.

The leaders among the Creoles and better class of Americans
counted on a speedy escape from this autocratic government, which
was confessedly temporary. The terms of the treaty, indeed,
encouraged the hope that Louisiana would be admitted at once as a
State. The inhabitants of the ceded territory were to be
"incorporated into the Union." But Congress gave a different
interpretation to these words and dashed all hopes by the act of
1804, which, while it conceded a legislative council, made its
members and all officers appointive, and divided the province. A
delegation of Creoles went to Washington to protest against this
inconsiderate treatment. They bore a petition which contained
many stiletto-like thrusts at the President. What about those
elemental rights of representation and election which had figured
in the glorious contest for freedom? "Do political axioms on the
Atlantic become problems when transferred to the shores of the
Mississippi?" To such arguments Congress could not remain wholly
indifferent. The outcome was a third act (March 2, 1805) which
established the usual form of territorial government, an elective
legislature, a delegate in Congress, and a Governor appointed by
the President. To a people who had counted on statehood these
concessions were small pinchbeck. Their irritation was not
allayed, and it continued to focus upon Governor Claiborne, the
distrusted agent of a government which they neither liked nor

Strange currents and counter-currents ran through the life of
this distant province. Casa Calvo and Morales, the former Spanish
officials, continued to reside in the city, like spiders at the
center of a web of Spanish intrigue; and the threads of their web
extended to West Florida, where Governor Folch watched every
movement of Americans up and down the Mississippi, and to Texas,
where Salcedo, Captain-General of the Internal Provinces of
Mexico, waited for overt aggressions from land-hungry American
frontiersmen. All these Spanish agents knew that Monroe had left
Madrid empty-handed yet still asserting claims that were
ill-disguised threats; but none of them knew whether the
impending blow would fall upon West Florida or Texas. Then, too,
right under their eyes was the Mexican Association, formed for
the avowed purpose of collecting information about Mexico which
would be useful if the United States should become involved in
war with Spain. In the city, also, were adventurous individuals
ready for any daring move upon Mexico, where, according to
credible reports, a revolution was imminent. The conquest of
Mexico was the day-dream of many an adventurer. In his memoir
advising Bonaparte to take and hold Louisiana as an impenetrable
barrier to Mexico, Pontalba had said with strong conviction: "It
is the surest means of destroying forever the bold schemes with
which several individuals in the United States never cease
filling the newspapers, by designating Louisiana as the highroad
to the conquest of Mexico."

Into this web of intrigue walked the late Vice-President of the
United States, leisurely journeying through the Southwest in the
summer of 1805.

Aaron Burr is one of the enigmas of American politics. Something
of the mystery and romance that shroud the evil-doings of certain
Italian despots of the age of the Renaissance envelops him.
Despite the researches of historians, the tangled web of Burr's
conspiracy has never been unraveled. It remains the most
fascinating though, perhaps, the least important episode in
Jefferson's administration. Yet Burr himself repays study, for
his activities touch many sides of contemporary society and
illuminate many dark corners in American politics.

According to the principles of eugenics, Burr was well-born, and
by all the laws of this pseudo-science should have left an
honorable name behind him. His father was a Presbyterian
clergyman, sound in the faith, who presided over the infancy of
the College of New Jersey; his maternal grandfather was that
massive divine, Jonathan Edwards. After graduating at Princeton,
Burr began to study law but threw aside his law books on hearing
the news of Lexington. He served with distinction under Arnold
before Quebec, under Washington in the battle of Long Island, and
later at Monmouth, and retired with the rank of lieutenant
colonel in 1779. Before the close of the Revolution he had begun
the practice of law in New York, and had married the widow of a
British army officer; entering politics, he became in turn a
member of the State Assembly, Attorney-General, and United States
Senator. But a mere enumeration of such details does not tell the
story of Burr's life and character. Interwoven with the strands
of his public career is a bewildering succession of intrigues and
adventures in which women have a conspicuous part, for Burr was a
fascinating man and disarmed distrust by avoiding any false
assumption of virtue. His marriage, however, proved happy. He
adored his wife and fairly worshiped his strikingly beautiful
daughter Theodosia.

Burr throve in the atmosphere of intrigue. New York politics
afforded his proper milieu. How he ingratiated himself with
politicians of high and low degree; how he unlocked the doors to
political preferment; how he became one of the first bosses of
the city of New York; how he combined public service with private
interest; how he organized the voters--no documents disclose.
Only now and then the enveloping fog lifts, as, for example,
during the memorable election of 1800, when the ignorant voters
of the seventh ward, duly drilled and marshaled, carried the city
for the Republicans, and not even Colonel Hamilton, riding on his
white horse from precinct to precinct, could stay the rout. That
election carried New York for Jefferson and made Burr the logical
candidate of the party for Vice-President.

These political strokes betoken a brilliant if not always a
steady and reliable mind. Burr, it must be said, was not trusted
even by his political associates. It is significant that
Washington, a keen judge of men, refused to appoint Burr as
Minister to France to succeed Morris because he was not convinced
of his integrity. And Jefferson shared these misgivings, though
the exigencies of politics made him dissemble his feelings. It is
significant, also, that Burr was always surrounded by men of more
than doubtful intentions--place-hunters and self-seeking
politicians, who had the gambler's instinct.

As Vice-President, Burr could not hope to exert much influence
upon the Administration, since the office in itself conferred
little power and did not even, according to custom, make him a
member of the Cabinet; but as Republican boss of New York who had
done more than any one man to secure the election of the ticket
in 1800, he might reasonably expect Jefferson and his Virginia
associates to treat him with consideration in the distribution of
patronage. To his intense chagrin, he was ignored; not only
ignored but discredited, for Jefferson deliberately allied
himself with the Clintons and the Livingstons, the rival factions
in New York which were bent upon driving Burr from the party.
This treatment filled Burr's heart with malice; but he nursed his
wounds in secret and bided his time.

Realizing that he was politically bankrupt, Burr made a hazard of
new fortunes in 1804 by offering himself as candidate for
Governor of New York, an office then held by George Clinton.
Early in the year he had a remarkable interview with Jefferson in
which he observed that it was for the interest of the party for
him to retire, but that his retirement under existing
circumstances would be thought discreditable. He asked "some mark
of favor from me," Jefferson wrote in his journal, "which would
declare to the world that he retired with my confidence"--an
executive appointment, in short. This was tantamount to an offer
of peace or war. Jefferson declined to gratify him, and Burr then
began an intrigue with the Federalist leaders of New England.

The rise of a Republican party of challenging strength in New
England cast Federalist leaders into the deepest gloom. Already
troubled by the annexation of Louisiana, which seemed to them to
imperil the ascendancy of New England in the Union, they now saw
their own ascendancy in New England imperiled. Under the
depression of impending disaster, men like Senator Timothy
Pickering of Massachusetts and Roger Griswold of Connecticut
broached to their New England friends the possibility of a
withdrawal from the Union and the formation of a Northern
Confederacy. As the confederacy shaped itself in Pickering's
imagination, it would of necessity include New York; and the
chaotic conditions in New York politics at this time invited
intrigue. When, therefore, a group of Burr's friends in the
Legislature named him as their candidate for Governor, Pickering
and Griswold seized the moment to approach him with their
treasonable plans. They gave him to understand that as Governor
of New York he would naturally hold a strategic position and
could, if he would, take the lead in the secession of the
Northern States. Federalist support could be given to him in the
approaching election. They would be glad to know his views. But
the shifty Burr would not commit himself further than to promise
a satisfactory administration. Though the Federalist intriguers
would have been glad of more explicit assurances they counted on
his vengeful temper and hatred of the Virginia domination at
Washington to make him a pliable tool. They were willing to
commit the party openly to Burr and trust to events to bind him
to their cause.

Against this mad intrigue one clear-headed individual resolutely
set himself--not wholly from disinterested motives. Alexander
Hamilton had good reason to know Burr. He declared in private
conversation, and the remark speedily became public property,
that he looked upon Burr as a dangerous man who ought not to be
trusted with the reins of government. He pleaded with New York
Federalists not to commit the fatal blunder of endorsing Burr in
caucus, and he finally won his point; but he could not prevent
his partisans from supporting Burr at the polls.

The defeat of Burr dashed the hopes of the Federalists of New
England; the bubble of a Northern Confederacy vanished. It dashed
also Burr's personal ambitions: he could no longer hope for
political rehabilitation in New York. And the man who a second
time had crossed his path and thwarted his purposes was his old
rival, Alexander Hamilton. It is said that Burr was not naturally
vindictive: perhaps no man is naturally vindictive. Certain it is
that bitter disappointment had now made Burr what Hamilton had
called him--"a dangerous man." He took the common course of men
of honor at this time; he demanded prompt and unqualified
acknowledgment or denial of the expression. Well aware of what
lay behind this demand, Hamilton replied deliberately with
half-conciliatory words, but he ended with the usual words of
those prepared to accept a challenge, "I can only regret the
circumstance, and must abide the consequences." A challenge
followed. We are told that Hamilton accepted to save his
political leadership and influence--strange illusion in one so
gifted! Yet public opinion had not yet condemned dueling, and men
must be judged against the background of their times.

On a summer morning (July 11, 1804) Burr and Hamilton crossed the
Hudson to Weehawken and there faced each other for the last time.
Hamilton withheld his fire; Burr aimed with murderous intent, and
Hamilton fell mortally wounded. The shot from Burr's pistol long
reverberated. It woke public conscience to the horror and
uselessness of dueling, and left Burr an outlaw from respectable
society, stunned by the recoil, and under indictment for murder.
Only in the South and West did men treat the incident lightly as
an affair of honor.

The political career of Burr was now closed. When he again met
the Senate face to face, he had been dropped by his own party in
favor of George Clinton, to whom he surrendered the
Vice-Presidency on March 5, 1805. His farewell address is
described as one of the most affecting ever spoken in the Senate.
Describing the scene to his daughter, Burr said that tears flowed
abundantly, but Burr must have described what he wished to see.
American politicians are not Homeric heroes, who weep on slight
provocation; and any inclination to pity Burr must have been
inhibited by the knowledge that he had made himself the
rallying-point of every dubious intrigue at the capital.

The list of Burr's intimates included Jonathan Dayton, whose term
as Senator had just ended, and who, like Burr, sought means of
promoting his fortunes, John Smith, Senator from Ohio, the
notorious Swartwouts of New York who were attached to Burr as
gangsters to their chief, and General James Wilkinson, governor
of the northern territory carved out of Louisiana and commander
of the western army with headquarters at St. Louis.

Wilkinson had a long record of duplicity, which was suspected but
never proved by his contemporaries. There was hardly a dubious
episode from the Revolution to this date with which he had not
been connected. He was implicated in the Conway cabal against
Washington; he was active in the separatist movement in Kentucky
during the Confederation; he entered into an irregular commercial
agreement with the Spanish authorities at New Orleans; he was
suspected--and rightly, as documents recently unearthed in Spain
prove--of having taken an oath of allegiance to Spain and of
being in the pay of Spain; he was also suspected--and
justly--of using his influence to bring about a separation of the
Western States from the Union; yet in 1791 he was given a
lieutenant-colonel's commission in the regular army and served
under St. Clair in the Northwest, and again as a
brigadier-general under Wayne. Even here the atmosphere of
intrigue enveloped him, and he was accused of inciting discontent
among the Kentucky troops and of trying to supplant Wayne. When
commissioners were trying to run the Southern boundary in
accordance with the treaty of 1795 with Spain, Wilkinson--still a
pensioner of Spain, as documents prove--attempted to delay the
survey. In the light of these revelations, Wilkinson appears as
an unscrupulous adventurer whose thirst for lucre made him
willing to betray either master--the Spaniard who pensioned him
or the American who gave him his command.

In the spring of 1805 Burr made a leisurely journey across the
mountains, by way of Pittsburgh, to New Orleans, where he had
friends and personal followers. The secretary of the territory
was one of his henchmen; a justice of the superior court was his
stepson; the Creole petitionists who had come to Washington to
secure self-government had been cordially received by Burr and
had a lively sense of gratitude. On his way down the Ohio, Burr
landed at Blennerhassett's Island, where an eccentric Irishman of
that name owned an estate. Harman Blennerhassett was to rue the
day that he entertained this fascinating guest. At Cincinnati he
was the guest of Senator Smith, and there he also met Dayton. At
Nashville he visited General Andrew Jackson, who was thrilled
with the prospect of war with Spain; at Fort Massac he spent four
days in close conference with General Wilkinson; and at New
Orleans he consorted with Daniel Clark, a rich merchant and the
most uncompromising opponent of Governor Claiborne, and with
members of the Mexican Association and every would-be adventurer
and filibuster. In November, Burr was again in Washington. What
was the purpose of this journey and what did it accomplish?

It is far easier to tell what Burr did after this mysterious
western expedition than what he planned to do. There is danger of
reading too great consistency into his designs. At one moment, if
we may believe Anthony Merry, the British Minister, who lent an
ear to Burr's proposals, he was plotting a revolution which
should separate the Western States from the Union. To accomplish
this design he needed British funds and a British naval force.
Jonathan Dayton revealed to Yrujo much the same plot--which he
thought was worth thirty or forty thousand dollars to the Spanish
Government. To such urgent necessity for funds were the
conspirators driven. But Dayton added further details to the
story which may have been intended only to intimidate Yrujo. The
revolution effected by British aid, said Dayton gravely, an
expedition would be undertaken against Mexico. Subsequently
Dayton unfolded a still more remarkable tale. Burr had been
disappointed in the expectation of British aid, and he was now
bent upon "an almost insane plan," which was nothing less than
the seizure of the Government at Washington. With the government
funds thus obtained, and with the necessary frigates, the
conspirators would sail for New Orleans and proclaim the
independence of Louisiana and the Western States.

The kernel of truth in these accounts is not easily separated
from the chaff. The supposition that Burr seriously contemplated
a separation of the Western States from the Union may be
dismissed from consideration. The loyalty of the Mississippi
Valley at this time is beyond question; and Burr was too keen an
observer not to recognize the temper of the people with whom he
sojourned. But there is reason to believe that he and his
confederates may have planned an enterprise against Mexico, for
such a project was quite to the taste of Westerners who hated
Spain as ardently as they loved the Union. Circumstances favored
a filibustering expedition. The President's bellicose message of
December had prepared the people of the Mississippi Valley for
war; the Spanish plotters had been expelled from Louisiana;
Spanish forces had crossed the Sabine; American troops had been
sent to repel them if need be; the South American revolutionist
Miranda had sailed, with vessels fitted out in New York, to start
a revolt against Spanish rule in Caracas; every revolutionist in
New Orleans was on the qui vive. What better time could there be
to launch a filibustering expedition against Mexico? If it
succeeded and a republic were established, the American
Government might be expected to recognize a fait accompli.

The success of Burr's plans, whatever they may have been,
depended on his procuring funds; and it was doubtless the hope of
extracting aid from Blennerhassett that drew him to the island in
midsummer of 1806. Burr was accompanied by his daughter Theodosia
and her husband, Joseph Alston, a wealthy South Carolina planter,
who was either the dupe or the accomplice of Burr. Together they
persuaded the credulous Irishman to purchase a tract of land on
the Washita River in the heart of Louisiana, which would
ultimately net him a profit of a million dollars when Louisiana
became an independent state with Burr as ruler and England as
protector. They even assured Blennerhassett that he should go as
minister to England. He was so dazzled at the prospect that he
not only made the initial payment for the lands, but advanced all
his property for Burr's use on receiving a guaranty from Alston.
Having landed his fish, Burr set off down the river to visit
General Jackson at Nashville and to procure boats and supplies
for his expedition.

Meanwhile, Theodosia--the brilliant, fascinating Theodosia--and
her husband played the game at Blennerhassett's Island.
Blennerhassett's head was completely turned. He babbled most
indiscreetly about the approaching coup d'etat. Colonel Burr
would be king of Mexico, he told his gardener, and Mrs. Alston
would be queen when Colonel Burr died. Who could resist the
charms of this young princess? Blennerhassett and his wife were
impatient to exchange their little isle for marble halls in far
away Mexico.

But all was not going well with the future Emperor of Mexico.
Ugly rumors were afloat. The active preparations at
Blennerhassett's Island, the building of boats at various points
along the river, the enlistment of recruits, coupled with hints
of secession, disturbed such loyal citizens as the
District-Attorney at Frankfort, Kentucky. He took it upon himself
to warn the President, and then, in open court, charged Burr with
violating the laws of the United States by setting on foot a
military expedition against Mexico and with inciting citizens to
rebellion in the Western States. But at the meeting of the grand
jury Burr appeared surrounded by his friends and with young Henry
Clay for counsel. The grand jury refused to indict him and he
left the court in triumph. Some weeks later the District-Attorney
renewed his motion; but again Burr was discharged by the grand
jury, amid popular applause. Enthusiastic admirers in Frankfort
even gave a ball in his honor.

Notwithstanding these warnings of conspiracy, President Jefferson
exhibited a singular indifference and composure. To all alarmists
he made the same reply. The people of the West were loyal and
could be trusted. It was not until disquieting and ambiguous
messages from Wilkinson reached Washington-disquieting because
ambiguous--that the President was persuaded to act. On the 27th
of November, he issued a proclamation warning all good citizens
that sundry persons were conspiring against Spain and enjoining
all Federal officers to apprehend those engaged in the unlawful
enterprise. The appearance of this proclamation at Nashville
should have led to Burr's arrest, for he was still detained
there; but mysterious influences seemed to paralyze the arm of
the Government. On the 22d of December, Burr set off, with two
boats which Jackson had built and some supplies, down the
Cumberland. At the mouth of the river, he joined forces with
Blennerhassett, who had left his island in haste just as the Ohio
militia was about to descend upon him. The combined strength of
the flotilla was nine bateaux carrying less than sixty men. There
was still time to intercept the expedition at Fort Massac, but
again delays that have never been explained prevented the
President's proclamation from arriving in time; and Burr's little
fleet floated peacefully by down stream.

The scene now shifts to the lower Mississippi, and the heavy
villain of the melodrama appears on the stage in the uniform of a
United States military officer--General James Wilkinson. He had
been under orders since May 6, 1806, to repair to the Territory
of Orleans with as little delay as possible and to repel any
invasion east of the River Sabine; but it was now September and
he had only just reached Natchitoches, where the American
volunteers and militiamen from Louisiana and Mississippi were
concentrating. Much water had flowed under the bridge since Aaron
Burr visited New Orleans.

After President Jefferson's bellicose message of the previous
December, war with Spain seemed inevitable. And when Spanish
troops crossed the Sabine in July and took up their post only
seventeen miles from Natchitoches, Western Americans awaited only
the word to begin hostilities. The Orleans Gazette declared that
the time to repel Spanish aggression had come. The enemy must be
driven beyond the Sabine. "The route from Natchitoches to Mexico
is clear, plain, and open." The occasion was at hand "for
conferring on our oppressed Spanish brethren in Mexico those
inestimable blessings of freedom which we ourselves enjoy."
"Gallant Louisianians! Now is the time to distinguish yourselves
. . . . Should the generous efforts of our Government to
establish a free, independent Republican Empire in Mexico be
successful, how fortunate, how enviable would be the situation in
New Orleans!" The editor who sounded this clarion call was a
coadjutor of Burr. On the flood tide of a popular war against
Spain, they proposed to float their own expedition. Much depended
on General Wilkinson; but he had already written privately of
subverting the Spanish Government in Mexico, and carrying "our
conquests to California and the Isthmus of Darien."

With much swagger and braggadocio, Wilkinson advanced to the
center of the stage. He would drive the Spaniards over the
Sabine, though they outnumbered him three to one. "I believe, my
friend," he wrote, "I shall be obliged to fight and to flog
them." Magnificent stage thunder. But to Wilkinson's chagrin the
Spaniards withdrew of their own accord. Not a Spaniard remained
to contest his advance to the border. Yet, oddly enough, he
remained idle in camp. Why?

Some two weeks later, an emissary appeared at Natchitoches with a
letter from Burr dated the 29th of July, in cipher. What this
letter may have originally contained will probably never be
known, for only Wilkinson's version survives, and that underwent
frequent revision.* It is quite as remarkable for its omissions
as for anything that it contains. In it there is no mention of a
western uprising nor of a revolution in New Orleans; but only the
intimation that an attack is to be made upon Spanish possessions,
presumably Mexico, with possibly Baton Rouge as the immediate
objective. Whether or no this letter changed Wilkinson's plan, we
can only conjecture. Certain it is, however, that about this time
Wilkinson determined to denounce Burr and his associates and to
play a double game, posing on the one hand as the savior of his
country and on the other as a secret friend to Spain. After some
hesitation he wrote to President Jefferson warning him in general
terms of an expedition preparing against Vera Cruz but omitting
all mention of Burr. Subsequently he wrote a confidential letter
about this "deep, dark, and widespread conspiracy" which enmeshed
all classes and conditions in New Orleans and might bring seven
thousand men from the Ohio. The contents of Burr's mysterious
letter were to be communicated orally to the President by the
messenger who bore this precious warning. It was on the strength
of these communications that the President issued his
proclamation of the 27th of November.

* What is usually accepted as the correct version is printed by
McCaleb in his "Aaron Burr Conspiracy," pp. 74 and 75, and by
Henry Adams in his "History of the United States," vol. III, pp.

While Wilkinson was inditing these misleading missives to the
President, he was preparing the way for his entry at New Orleans.
To the perplexed and alarmed Governor he wrote: "You are
surrounded by dangers of which you dream not, and the destruction
of the American Government is seriously menaced. The storm will
probably burst in New Orleans, where I shall meet it, and triumph
or perish!" Just five days later he wrote a letter to the Viceroy
of Mexico which proves him beyond doubt the most contemptible
rascal who ever wore an American uniform. "A storm, a
revolutionary tempest, an infernal plot threatens the destruction
of the empire," he wrote; the first object of attack would be New
Orleans, then Vera Cruz, then Mexico City; scenes of violence and
pillage would follow; let His Excellency be on his guard. To ward
off these calamities, "I will hurl myself like a Leonidas into
the breach." But let His Excellency remember what risks the
writer of this letter incurs, "by offering without orders this
communication to a foreign power," and let him reimburse the
bearer of this letter to the amount of 121,000 pesos which will
be spent to shatter the plans of these bandits from the Ohio.

The arrival of Wilkinson in New Orleans was awaited by friends
and foes, with bated breath. The conspirators had as yet no
intimation of his intentions: Governor Claiborne was torn by
suspicion of this would-be savior, for at the very time he was
reading Wilkinson's gasconade he received a cryptic letter from
Andrew Jackson which ran, "keep a watchful eye on our General and
beware of an attack as well from your own country as Spain!" If
Claiborne could not trust "our General," whom could he trust!

The stage was now set for the last act in the drama. Wilkinson
arrived in the city, deliberately set Claiborne aside, and
established a species of martial law, not without opposition. To
justify his course Wilkinson swore to an affidavit based on
Burr's letter of the 29th of July and proceeded with. his
arbitrary arrests. One by one Burr's confederates were taken into
custody. The city was kept in a state of alarm; Burr's armed
thousands were said to be on the way; the negroes were to be
incited to revolt. Only the actual appearance of Burr's
expedition or some extraordinary happening could maintain this
high pitch of popular excitement and save Wilkinson from becoming
the ridiculous victim of his own folly.

On the 10th of January (1807), after an uneventful voyage down
the Mississippi, Burr's flotilla reached the mouth of Bayou
Pierre, some thirty miles above Natchez. Here at length was the
huge armada which was to shatter the Union--nine boats and sixty
men! Tension began to give way. People began to recover their
sense of humor. Wilkinson was never in greater danger in his
life, for he was about to appear ridiculous. It was at Bayou
Pierre that Burr going ashore learned that Wilkinson had betrayed
him. His first instinct was to flee, for if he should proceed to
New Orleans he would fall into Wilkinson's hands and doubtless be
court-martialed and shot; but if he tarried, he would be arrested
and sent to Washington. Indecision and despair seized him; and
while Blennerhassett and other devoted followers waited for their
emperor to declare his intention, he found himself facing the
acting-governor of the Mississippi Territory with a warrant for
his arrest. To the chagrin of his fellow conspirators, Burr
surrendered tamely, even pusillanimously.

The end of the drama was near at hand. Burr was brought before a
grand jury, and though he once more escaped indictment, he was
put under bonds, quite illegally he thought, to appear when
summoned. On the 1st of February he abandoned his followers to
the tender mercies of the law and fled in disguise into the
wilderness. A month later he was arrested near the Spanish border
above Mobile by Lieutenant Gaines, in command at Fort Stoddert,
and taken to Richmond. The trial that followed did not prove
Burr's guilt, but it did prove Thomas Jefferson's credulity and
cast grave doubts on James Wilkinson's loyalty.* Burr was
acquitted of the charge of treason in court, but he remained
under popular indictment, and his memory has never been wholly
cleared of the suspicion of treason.

* An account of the trial of Burr will be found in "John Marshall
and the Constitution" by Edward S. Corwin, in "The Chronicles of


While Captain Bainbridge was eating his heart out in the Pasha's
prison at Tripoli, his thoughts reverting constantly to his lost
frigate, he reminded Commodore Preble, with whom he was allowed
to correspond, that "the greater part of our crew consists of
English subjects not naturalized in America." This incidental
remark comes with all the force of a revelation to those who have
fondly imagined that the sturdy jack-tars who manned the first
frigates were genuine American sea-dogs. Still more disconcerting
is the information contained in a letter from the Secretary of
the Treasury to President Jefferson, some years later, to the
effect that after 1803 American tonnage increased at the rate of
seventy thousand a year, but that of the four thousand seamen
required to man this growing mercantile marine, fully one-half
were British subjects, presumably deserters. How are these
uncomfortable facts to be explained? Let a third piece of
information be added. In a report of Admiral Nelson, dated 1803,
in which he broaches a plan for manning the British navy, it is
soberly stated that forty-two thousand British seamen deserted
"in the late war." Whenever a large convoy assembled at
Portsmouth, added the Admiral, not less than a thousand seamen
usually deserted from the navy.

The slightest acquaintance with the British navy when Nelson was
winning immortal glory by his victory at Trafalgar must convince
the most sceptical that his seamen for the most part were little
better than galley slaves. Life on board these frigates was
well-nigh unbearable. The average life of a seaman, Nelson
reckoned, was forty-five years. In this age before processes of
refrigeration had been invented, food could not be kept edible on
long voyages, even in merchantmen. Still worse was the fare on
men-of-war. The health of a crew was left to Providence. Little
or no forethought was exercised to prevent disease; the commonest
matters of personal hygiene were neglected; and when disease came
the remedies applied were scarcely to be preferred to the
disease. Discipline, always brutal, was symbolized by the
cat-o'-nine-tails. Small wonder that the navy was avoided like
the plague by every man and seaman.

Yet a navy had to be maintained: it was the cornerstone of the
Empire. And in all the history of that Empire the need of a navy
was never stronger than in these opening years of the nineteenth
century. The practice of impressing able men for the royal navy
was as old as the reign of Elizabeth. The press gang was an
odious institution of long standing--a terror not only to rogue
and vagabond but to every able-bodied seafaring man and waterman
on rivers, who was not exempted by some special act. It ransacked
the prisons, and carried to the navy not only its victims but the
germs of fever which infested public places of detention. But the
press gang harvested its greatest crop of seamen on the seas.
Merchantmen were stopped at sea, robbed of their able sailors,
and left to limp short-handed into port. A British East Indiaman
homeward bound in 1802 was stripped of so many of her crew in the
Bay of Biscay that she was unable to offer resistance to a French
privateer and fell a rich victim into the hands of the enemy. The
necessity of the royal navy knew no law and often defeated its
own purpose.

Death or desertion offered the only way of escape to the victim
of the press gang. And the commander of a British frigate dreaded
making port almost as much as an epidemic of typhus. The deserter
always found American merchantmen ready to harbor him. Fair
wages, relatively comfortable quarters, and decent treatment made
him quite ready to take any measures to forswear his allegiance
to Britannia. Naturalization papers were easily procured by a few
months' residence in any State of the Union; and in default of
legitimate papers, certificates of citizenship could be bought
for a song in any American seaport, where shysters drove a
thrifty traffic in bogus documents. Provided the English navy
took the precaution to have the description in his certificate
tally with his personal appearance, and did not let his tongue
betray him, he was reasonably safe from capture.

Facing the palpable fact that British seamen were deserting just
when they were most needed and were making American merchantmen
and frigates their asylum, the British naval commanders, with no
very nice regard for legal distinctions, extended their search
for deserters to the decks of American vessels, whether in
British waters or on the high seas. If in time of war, they
reasoned, they could stop a neutral ship on the high seas, search
her for contraband of war, and condemn ship and cargo in a prize
court if carrying contraband, why might they not by the same
token search a vessel for British deserters and impress them into
service again? Two considerations seem to justify this reasoning:
the trickiness of the smart Yankees who forged citizenship
papers, and the indelible character of British allegiance. Once
an Englishman always an Englishman, by Jove! Your hound of a
sea-dog might try to talk through his nose like a Yankee, you
know, and he might shove a dirty bit of paper at you, but he
couldn't shake off his British citizenship if he wanted to! This
was good English law, and if it wasn't recognized by other
nations so much the worse for them. As one of these redoubtable
British captains put it, years later: "'Might makes right' is the
guiding, practical maxim among nations and ever will be, so long
as powder and shot exist, with money to back them, and energy to
wield them." Of course, there were hair-splitting fellows, plenty
of them, in England and the States, who told you that it was one
thing to seize a vessel carrying contraband and have her
condemned by judicial process in a court of admiralty, and quite
another thing to carry British subjects off the decks of a
merchantman flying a neutral flag; but if you knew the blasted
rascals were deserters what difference did it make? Besides, what
would become of the British navy, if you listened to all the
fine-spun arguments of landsmen? And if these stalwart blue-water
Britishers could have read what Thomas Jefferson was writing at
this very time, they would have classed him with the armchair
critics who had no proper conception of a sailor's duty. "I hold
the right of expatriation," wrote the President, "to be inherent
in every man by the laws of nature, and incapable of being
rightfully taken away from him even by the united will of every
other person in the nation."

In the year 1805, while President Jefferson was still the victim
of his overmastering passion, and disposed to cultivate the good
will of England, if thereby he might obtain the Floridas,
unforeseen commercial complications arose which not only blocked
the way to a better understanding in Spanish affairs but strained
diplomatic relations to the breaking point. News reached Atlantic
seaports that American merchantmen, which had hitherto engaged
with impunity in the carrying trade between Europe and the West
Indies, had been seized and condemned in British admiralty
courts. Every American shipmaster and owner at once lifted up his
voice in indignant protest; and all the latent hostility to their
old enemy revived. Here were new orders-in-council, said they:
the leopard cannot change his spots. England is still
England--the implacable enemy of neutral shipping. "Never will
neutrals be perfectly safe till free goods make free ships or
till England loses two or three great naval battles," declared
the Salem Register.

The recent seizures were not made by orders-in-council, however,
but in accordance with a decision recently handed down by the
court of appeals in the case of the ship Essex. Following a
practice which had become common in recent years, the Essex had
sailed with a cargo from Barcelona to Salem and thence to Havana.
On the high seas she had been captured, and then taken to a
British port, where ship and cargo were condemned because the
voyage from Spain to her colony had been virtually continuous,
and by the so-called Rule of 1756, direct trade between a
European state and its colony was forbidden to neutrals in time
of war when such trade had not been permitted in time of peace.
Hitherto, the British courts had inclined to the view that when
goods had been landed in a neutral country and duties paid, the
voyage had been broken. Tacitly a trade that was virtually direct
had been countenanced, because the payment of duties seemed
evidence enough that the cargo became a part of the stock of the
neutral country and, if reshipped, was then a bona fide neutral
cargo. Suddenly English merchants and shippers woke to the fact
that they were often victims of deception. Cargoes would be
landed in the United States, duties ostensibly paid, and the
goods ostensibly imported, only to be reshipped in the same
bottoms, with the connivance of port officials, either without
paying any real duties or with drawbacks. In the case of the
Essex the court of appeals cut directly athwart these practices
by going behind the prima facie payment and inquiring into the
intent of the voyage. The mere touching at a port without
actually importing the cargo into the common stock of the country
did not alter the nature of the voyage. The crucial point was the
intent, which the court was now and hereafter determined to
ascertain by examination of facts. The court reached the
indubitable conclusion that the cargo of the Essex had never been
intended for American markets. The open-minded historian must
admit that this was a fair application of the Rule of 1756, but
he may still challenge the validity of the rule, as all neutral
countries did, and the wisdom of the monopolistic impulse which
moved the commercial classes and the courts of England to this

* Professor William E. Lingelbach in a notable article on
"England and Neutral Trade" in "The Military Historian and
Economist" (April, 1917) has pointed out the error committed by
almost every historian from Henry Adams down, that the Essex
decision reversed previous rulings of the court and was not in
accord with British law.

Had the impressment of seamen and the spoliation of neutral
commerce occurred only on the high seas, public resentment would
have mounted to a high pitch in the United States; but when
British cruisers ran into American waters to capture or burn
French vessels, and when British men-of-war blockaded ports,
detaining and searching--and at times capturing--American
vessels, indignation rose to fever heat. The blockade of New York
Harbor by two British frigates, the Cambrian and the Leander,
exasperated merchants beyond measure. On board the Leander was a
young midshipman, Basil Hall, who in after years described the
activities of this execrated frigate.

"Every morning at daybreak, we set about arresting the progress
of all the vessels we saw, firing of guns to the right and left
to make every ship that was running in heave to, or wait until we
had leisure to send a boat on board 'to see, in our lingo, 'what
she was made of.' I have frequently known a dozen, and sometimes
a couple of dozen, ships lying a league or two off the port,
losing their fair wind, their tide, and worse than all their
market, for many hours, sometimes the whole day, before our
search was completed."*

* "Fragments of Voyages and Travels," quoted by Henry Adams, in
"History of the United States", vol. III, p. 92.

One day in April, 1806, the Leander, trying to halt a merchantman
that she meant to search, fired a shot which killed the helmsman
of a passing sloop. The boat sailed on to New York with the
mangled body; and the captain, brother of the murdered man,
lashed the populace into a rage by his mad words. Supplies for
the frigates were intercepted, personal violence was threatened
to any British officers caught on shore, the captain of the
Leander was indicted for murder, and the funeral of the murdered
sailor was turned into a public demonstration. Yet nothing came
of this incident, beyond a proclamation by the President closing
the ports of the United States to the offending frigates and
ordering the arrest of the captain of the Leander wherever found.
After all, the death of a common seaman did not fire the hearts
of farmers peacefully tilling their fields far beyond hearing of
the Leander's guns.

A year full of troublesome happenings passed; scores of American
vessels were condemned in British admiralty courts, and American
seamen were impressed with increasing frequency, until in the
early summer of 1807 these manifold grievances culminated in an
outrage that shook even Jefferson out of his composure and evoked
a passionate outcry for war from all parts of the country.

While a number of British war vessels were lying in Hampton Roads
watching for certain French frigates which had taken refuge up
Chesapeake Bay, they lost a number of seamen by desertion under
peculiarly annoying circumstances. In one instance a whole boat's
crew made off under cover of night to Norfolk and there publicly
defied their commander. Three deserters from the British frigate
Melampus had enlisted on the American frigate Chesapeake, which
had just been fitted out for service in the Mediterranean; but on
inquiry these three were proven to be native Americans who had
been impressed into British service. Unfortunately inquiry did
disclose one British deserter who had enlisted on the Chesapeake,
a loud-mouthed tar by the name of Jenkin Ratford. These
irritating facts stirred Admiral Berkeley at Halifax to
highhanded measures. Without waiting for instructions, he issued
an order to all commanders in the North Atlantic Squadron to
search the Chesapeake for deserters, if she should be encountered
on the high seas. This order of the 1st of June should be shown
to the captain of the Chesapeake as sufficient authority for
searching her.

On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake passed unsuspecting between the
capes on her way to the Mediterranean. She was a stanch frigate
carrying forty guns and a crew of 375 men and boys; but she was
at this time in a distressing state of unreadiness, owing to the
dilatoriness and incompetence of the naval authorities at
Washington. The gundeck was littered with lumber and odds and
ends of rigging; the guns, though loaded, were not all fitted to
their carriages; and the crew was untrained. As the guns had to
be fired by slow matches or by loggerheads heated red-hot, and
the ammunition was stored in the magazine, the frigate was
totally unprepared for action. Commodore Barron, who commanded
the Chesapeake, counted on putting her into fighting trim on the
long voyage across the Atlantic.

Just ahead of the Chesapeake as she passed out to sea, was the
Leopard, a British frigate of fifty-two guns, which was
apparently on the lookout for suspicious merchantmen. It was not
until both vessels were eight miles or more southeast of Cape
Henry that the movements of the Leopard began to attract
attention. At about half-past three in the afternoon she came
within hailing distance and hove to, announcing that she had
dispatches for the commander. The Chesapeake also hove to and
answered the hail, a risky move considering that she was
unprepared for action and that the Leopard lay to the windward.
But why should the commander of the American frigate have
entertained suspicions?

A boat put out from the Leopard, bearing a petty officer, who
delivered a note enclosing Admiral Berkeley's order and
expressing the hope that "every circumstance . . . may be
adjusted in a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two
countries may remain undisturbed." Commodore Barron replied that
he knew of no British deserters on his vessel and declined in
courteous terms to permit his crew to be mustered by any other
officers but their own. The messenger departed, and then, for the
first time entertaining serious misgivings, Commodore Barron
ordered his decks cleared for action. But before the crew could
bestir themselves, the Leopard drew near, her men at quarters.
The British commander shouted a warning, but Barron, now
thoroughly alarmed, replied, "I don't hear what you say." The
warning was repeated, but again Barron to gain time shouted that
he could not hear. The Leopard then fired two shots across the
bow of the Chesapeake, and almost immediately without parleying
further--she was now within two hundred feet of her
victim--poured a broadside into the American vessel.

Confusion reigned on the Chesapeake. The crew for the most part
showed courage, but they were helpless, for they could not fire a
gun for want of slow matches or loggerheads. They crowded about
the magazine clamoring in vain for a chance to defend the vessel;
they yelled with rage at their predicament. Only one gun was
discharged and that was by means of a live coal brought up from
the galley after the Chesapeake had received a third broadside
and Commodore Barron had ordered the flag to be hauled down to
spare further slaughter. Three of his crew had already been
killed and eighteen wounded, himself among the number. The whole
action lasted only fifteen minutes.

Boarding crews now approached and several British officers
climbed to the deck of the Chesapeake and mustered her crew.
Among the ship's company they found the alleged deserters and,
hiding in the coal-hole, the notorious Jenkin Ratford. These four
men they took with them, and the Leopard, having fulfilled her
instructions, now suffered the Chesapeake to limp back to Hampton
Roads. "For the first time in their history," writes Henry
Adams,* "the people of the United States learned, in June, 1807,
the feeling of a true national emotion. Hitherto every public
passion had been more or less partial and one-sided; . . . but
the outrage committed on the Chesapeake stung through hidebound
prejudices, and made democrat and aristocrat writhe alike."

* History of the United States, vol. IV, p. 27.

Had President Jefferson chosen to go to war at this moment, he
would have had a united people behind him, and he was well aware
that he possessed the power of choice. "The affair of the
Chesapeake put war into my hand," he wrote some years later. "I
had only to open it and let havoc loose." But Thomas Jefferson
was not a martial character. The State Governors, to be sure,
were requested to have their militia in readiness, and the
Governor of Virginia was desired to call such companies into
service as were needed for the defense of Norfolk. The President
referred in indignant terms to the abuse of the laws of
hospitalitv and the "outrage" committed by the British commander;
but his proclamation only ordered all British armed vessels out
of American waters and forbade all intercourse with them if they
remained. The tone of the proclamation was so moderate as to seem
pusillanimous. John Randolph called it an apology. Thomas
Jefferson did not mean to have war. With that extraordinary
confidence in his own powers, which in smaller men would be
called smug conceit, he believed that he could secure disavowal
and honorable reparation for the wrong committed; but he chose a
frail intermediary when he committed this delicate mission to
James Monroe.


It is one of the strange paradoxes of our time that the author of
the Declaration of Independence, to whose principle of
self-determination the world seems again to be turning, should
now be regarded as a self-confessed pacifist, with all the
derogatory implications that lurk in that epithet. The
circumstances which made him a revolutionist in 1776 and a
passionate advocate of peace in 1807 deserve some consideration.
The charge made by contemporaries of Jefferson that his aversion
to war sprang from personal cowardice may be dismissed at once,
as it was by him, with contempt. Nor was his hatred of war merely
an instinctive abhorrence of bloodshed. He had not hesitated to
wage naval war on the Barbary Corsairs. It is true that he was
temperamentally averse to the use of force under ordinary
circumstances. He did not belong to that type of full-blooded men
who find self-expression in adventurous activity. Mere physical
effort without conscious purpose never appealed to him. He was at
the opposite pole of life from a man like Aaron Burr. He never,
so far as history records, had an affair of honor; he never
fought a duel; he never performed active military service; he
never took human life. Yet he was not a non-resistant. "My hope
of preserving peace for our country," he wrote on one occasion,
"is not founded in the Quaker principle of nonresistance under
every wrong."

The true sources of Jefferson's pacifism must be sought in his
rationalistic philosophy, which accorded the widest scope to the
principle of self-direction and self determination, whether on
the part of the individual or of groups of individuals. To impose
one's will upon another was to enslave, according to his notion;
to coerce by war was to enslave a community; and to enslave a
community was to provoke revolution. Jefferson's thought
gravitated inevitably to the center of his rational universe--to
the principle of enlightened self-interest. Men and women are not
to be permanently moved by force but by appeals to their
interests. He completed his thought as follows in the letter
already quoted: "But [my hope of preserving peace is founded] in
the belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will
procure justice and friendship from others. In the existing
contest, each of the combatants will find an interest in our

It was a chaotic world in which this philosopher-statesman was
called upon to act--a world in which international law and
neutral rights had been well-nigh submerged in twelve years of
almost continuous war. Yet with amazing self-assurance President
Jefferson believed that he held in his hand a master-key which
would unlock all doors that had been shut to the commerce of
neutrals. He called this master-key "peaceable coercion," and he
explained its magic potency in this wise:

"Our commerce is so valuable to them [the European belligerents]
that they will be glad to purchase it when the only price we ask
is to do us justice. I believe that we have in our hands the
means of peaceable coercion; and that the moment they see our
government so united as that they can make use of it, they will
for their own interest be disposed to do us justice."

The idea of using commercial restrictions as a weapon to secure
recognition of rights was of course not original with Jefferson,
but it was now to be given a trial without parallel in the
history of the nation. Non-importation agreements had proved
efficacious in the struggle of the colonies with the mother
country; it seemed not unreasonable to suppose that a
well-sustained refusal to traffic in English goods would meet the
emergency of 1807, when the ruling of British admiralty courts
threatened to cut off the lucrative commerce between Europe and
the West Indies. With this theory in view, the President and his
Secretary of State advocated the NonImportation Bill of April 18,
1806, which forbade the entry of certain specified goods of
British manufacture. The opposition found a leader in Randolph,
who now broke once and for all with the Administration. "Never in
the course of my life," he exclaimed, "have I witnessed such a
scene of indignity and inefficiency as this measure holds forth
to the world. What is it? A milk-and-water bill! A dose of
chicken-broth to be taken nine months hence! . . . It is too
contemptible to be the object of consideration, or to excite the
feelings of the pettiest state in Europe." The Administration
carried the bill through Congress, but Randolph had the
satisfaction of seeing his characterisation of the measure amply
justified by the course of events.

With the Non-Importation Act as a weapon, the President was
confident that Monroe, who had once more returned to his post in
London, could force a settlement of all outstanding differences
with Great Britain. To his annoyance, and to Monroe's chagrin,
however, he was obliged to send a special envoy to act with
Monroe. Factious opposition in the Senate forced the President to
placate the Federalists by appointing William Pinkney of
Maryland. The American commissioners were instructed to insist
upon three concessions in the treaty which they were to
negotiate: restoration of trade with enemies' colonies, indemnity
for captures made since the Essex decision, and express
repudiation of the right of impressment. In return for these
concessions, they might hold out the possible repeal of the
Non-Importation Act! Only confirmed optimists could believe that
the mistress of the seas, flushed with the victory of Trafalgar,
would consent to yield these points for so slight a compensation.
The mission was, indeed, doomed from the outset, and nothing more
need be said of it than that in the end, to secure any treaty at
all, Monroe and Pinkney broke their instructions and set aside
the three ultimata. What they obtained in return seemed so
insignificant and doubtful, and what they paid for even these
slender compensations seemed so exorbitant, that the President
would not even submit the treaty to the Senate. The first
application of the theory of peaceable coercion thus ended in
humiliating failure. Jefferson thought it best "to let the
negotiation take a friendly nap"; but Madison, who felt that his
political future depended on a diplomatic triumph over England,
drafted new instructions for the two commissioners, hoping that
the treaty might yet be put into acceptable form. It was while
these new instructions were crossing the ocean that the
Chesapeake struck her colors.

James Monroe is one of the most unlucky diplomats in American
history. From those early days when he had received the fraternal
embraces of the Jacobins in Paris and had been recalled by
President Washington, to the ill-fated Spanish mission,
circumstances seem to have conspired against him. The honor of
negotiating the purchase of Louisiana should have been his alone,
but he arrived just a day too late and was obliged to divide the
glory with Livingston. On this mission to England he was not
permitted to conduct negotiations alone but was associated with
William Pinkney, a Federalist. No wonder he suspected Madison, or
at least Madison's friends, of wishing to discredit him. And now
another impossible task was laid upon him. He was instructed to
demand not only disavowal. and reparation for the attack on the
Chesapeake and the restoration of the American seamen, but also
as "an indispensable part of the satisfaction" "an entire
abolition of impressments." If the Secretary of State had
deliberately contrived to deliver Monroe into the hands of George
Canning, he could not have been more successful, for Monroe had
already protested against the Chesapeake outrage as an act of
aggression which should be promptly disavowed without reference
to the larger question of impressment. He was now obliged to eat
his own words and inject into the discussion, as Canning put it,
the irrelevant matters which they had agreed to separate from the
present controversy. Canning was quick to see his opportunity.
Mr. Monroe must be aware, said he, that on several recent
occasions His Majesty had firmly declined to waive "the ancient
and prescriptive usages of Great Britain, founded on the soundest
principles of natural law," simply because they might come in
contact with the interests or the feelings of the American
people. If Mr. Monroe's instructions left him powerless to adjust
this regrettable incident of the Leopard and the Chesapeake,
without raising the other question of the right of search and
impressment, then His Majesty could only send a special envoy to
the United States to terminate the controversy in a manner
satisfactory to both countries. "But," added Canning with sarcasm
which was not lost on Monroe, "in order to avoid the
inconvenience which has arisen from the mixed nature of your
instructions, that minister will not be empowered to entertain .
. . any proposition respecting the search of merchant vessels."

One more humiliating experience was reserved for Monroe before
his diplomatic career closed. Following Madison's new set of
instructions, he and Pinkney attempted to reopen negotiations for
the revision of the discredited treaty of the preceding year. But
Canning had reasons of his own for wishing to be rid of a treaty
which had been drawn by the late Whig Ministry. He informed the
American commissioners arrogantly that "the proposal of the
President of the United States for proceeding to negotiate anew
upon the basis of a treaty already solemnly concluded and signed,
is a proposal wholly inadmissible." His Majesty could therefore
only acquiesce in the refusal of the President to ratify the
treaty. One week later, James Monroe departed from London, never
again to set foot on British soil, leaving Pinkney to assume the
duties of Minister at the Court of St. James. For the second time
Monroe returned to his own country discredited by the President
who had appointed him. In both instances he felt himself the
victim of injustice. In spite of his friendship for Jefferson, he
was embittered against the Administration and in this mood lent
himself all too readily to the schemes of John Randolph, who had
already picked him as the one candidate who could beat Madison in
the next presidential election.

>From the point of view of George Canning and the Tory
whose mouthpiece he was, the Chesapeake affair was but an
incident--an unhappy incident, to be sure, but still only an
incident--in the world-wide struggle with Napoleon. What was at
stake was nothing less than the commercial supremacy of Great
Britain. The astounding growth of Napoleon's empire was a
standing menace to British trade. The overthrow of Prussia in the
fall of 1806 left the Corsican in control of Central Europe and
in a position to deal his long premeditated blow. A fortnight
after the battle of Jena, he entered Berlin and there issued the
famous decree which was his answer to the British blockade of the
French channel ports. Since England does not recognize the system
of international law universally observed by all civilized
nations--so the preamble read--but by a monstrous abuse of the
right of blockade has determined to destroy neutral trade and to
raise her commerce and industry upon the ruins of that of the
continent, and since "whoever deals on the continent in English
goods thereby favors and renders himself an accomplice of her
designs," therefore the British Isles are declared to be in a
state of blockade. Henceforth all English goods were to be lawful
prize in any territory held by the troops of France or her
allies; and all vessels which had come from English ports or from
English colonies were to be confiscated, together with their
cargoes. This challenge was too much for the moral equilibrium of
the squires, the shipowners, and the merchants who dominated
Parliament. It dulled their sense of justice and made them
impatient under the pinpricks which came from the United States.
"A few short months of war," declared the Morning Post
truculently, "would convince these desperate [American]
politicians of the folly of measuring the strength of a rising,
but still infant and puny, nation with the colossal power of the
British Empire." "Right," said the Times, another organ of the
Tory Government, "is power sanctioned by usage." Concession to
Americans at this crisis was not to be entertained for a moment,
for after all, said the Times, they "possess all the vices of
their Indian neighbors without their virtues."

In this temper the British Government was prepared to ignore the
United States and deal Napoleon blow for blow. An
order-in-council of January 7, 1807, asserted the right of
retaliation and declared that "no vessel shall be permitted to
trade from one port to another, both which ports shall belong to,
or be in possession of France or her allies." The peculiar
hardship of this order for American shipowners is revealed by the
papers of Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, whose shrewdness and
enterprise were making him one of the merchant princes of his
time. One of his ships, the Liberty, of some 250 tons, was sent
to Lisbon with a cargo of 2052 barrels and 220 half-barrels of
flour which cost the owner $10.68 a barrel. Her captain, on
entering port, learned that flour commanded a better price at
Cadiz. To Cadiz, accordingly, he set sail and sold his cargo for
$22.50 a barrel, winning for the owner a goodly profit of
$25,000, less commission. It was such trading ventures as this
that the British order-in-council doomed.

What American shipmasters had now to fear from both belligerents
was made startlingly clear by the fate of the ship Horizon, which
had sailed from Charleston, South Carolina, with a cargo for
Zanzibar. On the way she touched at various South American ports
and disposed of most of her cargo. Then changing her destination,
and taking on a cargo for the English market, she set sail for
London. On the way she was forced to put in at Lisbon to refit.
As she left to resume her voyage she was seized by an English
frigate and brought in as a fair prize, since --according to the
Rule of 1756--she had been apprehended in an illegal traffic
between an enemy country and its colony. The British prize court
condemned the cargo but released the ship. The unlucky Horizon
then loaded with an English cargo and sailed again to Lisbon, but
misfortune overtook her and she was wrecked off the French coast.
Her cargo was salvaged, however, and what was not of English
origin was restored to her owners by decree of a French prize
court; the rest of her cargo was confiscated under the terms of
the Berlin decree. When the American Minister protested at this
decision, he was told that "since America suffers her ships to be
searched, she adopts the principle that the flag does not cover
the goods. Since she recognizes the absurd blockades laid by
England, consents to having her vessels incessantly stopped, sent
to England, and so turned aside from their course, why should the
Americans not suffer the blockade laid by France? Certainly
France recognizes that these measures are unjust, illegal, and
subversive of national sovereignty; but it is the duty of nations
to resort to force, and to declare themselves against things
which dishonor them and disgrace their independence."* But an
invitation to enter the European maelstrom and battle for neutral
rights made no impression upon the mild-tempered President.

* Henry Adams, History of the United States, IV, p. 110.

It is as clear as day that the British Government was now
determined, under pretense of retaliating upon France, to promote
British trade with the continent by every means and at the
expense of neutrals. Another order-in-council, November 17, 1807,
closed to neutrals all European ports under French control, "as
if the same were actually blockaded," but permitted vessels which
first entered a British port and obtained a British license to
sail to any continental port. It was an order which, as Henry
Adams has said, could have but one purpose--to make American
commerce English. This was precisely the contemporary opinion of
the historian's grandfather, who declared that the
"orders-in-council, if submitted to, would have degraded us to
the condition of colonists."

Only one more blow was needed, it would seem, to complete the
ruin of American commerce. It fell a month later, when Napoleon,
having overrun the Spanish peninsula and occupied Portugal,
issued his Milan decree of December 17, 1807. Henceforth any
vessel which submitted to search by English cruisers, or paid any
tonnage duty or tax to the English Government, or sailed to or
from any English port, would be captured and condemned as lawful
prize. Such was to be the maritime code of France "until England
should return to the principles of international law which are
also those of justice and honor."

Never was a commercial nation less prepared to defend itself
against depredations than the United States of America in this
year 1807. For this unpreparedness many must bear the blame, but
President Jefferson has become the scapegoat. This Virginia
farmer and landsman was not only ignorant and distrustful of all
the implements of war, but utterly unfamiliar with the ways of
the sea and with the first principles of sea-power. The
Tripolitan War seems to have inspired him with a single fixed
idea--that for defensive purposes gunboats were superior to
frigates and less costly. He set forth this idea in a special
message to Congress (February 10, 1807), claiming to have the
support of "professional men," among whom he mentioned Generals
Wilkinson and Gates! He proposed the construction of two hundred
of these gunboats, which would be distributed among the various
exposed harbors, where in time of peace they would be hauled up
on shore under sheds, for protection against sun and storm. As
emergency arose these floating batteries were to be manned by the
seamen and militia of the port. What appealed particularly to the
President in this programme was the immunity it offered from "an
excitement to engage in offensive maritime war." Gallatin would
have modified even this plan for economy's sake. He would have
constructed only one-half of the proposed fleet since the large
seaports could probably build thirty gunboats in as many days, if
an emergency arose. In extenuation of Gallatin's
shortsightedness, it should be remembered that he was a native of
Switzerland, whose navy has never ploughed many seas. It is less
easy to excuse the rest of the President's advisers and the
Congress which was beguiled into accepting this naive project.
Nor did the Chesapeake outrage teach either Congress or the
Administration a salutary lesson. On the contrary, when in
October the news of the bombardment of Copenhagen had shattered
the nerves of statesmen in all neutral countries, and while the
differences with England were still unsettled, Jefferson and his
colleagues decided to hold four of the best frigates in port and
use them "as receptacles for enlisting seamen to fill the
gunboats occasionally." Whom the gods would punish they first
make mad!

The 17th of December was a memorable day in the annals of this
Administration. Favorable tradewinds had brought into American
ports a number of packets with news from Europe. The Revenge had
arrived in New York with Armstrong's dispatches announcing
Napoleon's purpose to enforce the Berlin decree; the Edward had
reached Boston with British newspapers forecasting the
order-in-council of the 11th of November. This news burst like a
bomb in Washington where the genial President was observing with
scientific detachment the operation of his policy of commercial
coercion. The Non-Importation Act had just gone into effect.
Jefferson immediately called his Cabinet together. All were of
one mind. The impending order-in-council, it was agreed, left but
one alternative. Commerce must be totally suspended until the
full scope of these new aggressions could be ascertained. The
President took a loose sheet of paper and drafted hastily a
message to Congress, recommending an embargo in anticipation of
the offensive British order. But the prudent Madison urged that
it was better not to refer explicitly to the order and proposed a
substitute which simply recommended "an immediate inhibition of
the departure of our vessels from the ports of the United
States," on the ground that shipping was likely to be exposed to
greater dangers. Only Gallatin demurred: he would have preferred
an embargo for a limited time. "I prefer war to a permanent
embargo," he wrote next day. "Government prohibitions," he added
significantly, "do always more mischief than had been
calculated." But Gallatin was overruled and the message, in
Madison's form, was sent to Congress on the following day. The
Senate immediately passed the desired bill through three readings
in a single day; the House confirmed this action after only two
days of debate; and on the 22d of December, the President signed
the Embargo Act.

What was this measure which was passed by Congress almost without
discussion? Ostensibly it was an act for the protection of
American ships, merchandise, and seamen. It forbade the departure
of all ships for foreign ports, except vessels under the
immediate direction of the President and vessels in ballast or
already loaded with goods. Foreign armed vessels were exempted
also as a matter of course. Coasting ships were to give bonds
double the value of vessel and cargo to reland their freight in
some port of the United States. Historians have discovered a
degree of duplicity in the alleged motives for this act. How, it
is asked, could protection of ships and seamen be the motive when
all of Jefferson's private letters disclose his determination to
put his theory of peaceable coercion to a practical test by this
measure? The criticism is not altogether fair, for, as Jefferson
would himself have replied, peaceable coercion was designed to
force the withdrawal of orders-in-council and decrees that
menaced the safety of ships and cargoes. The policy might entail
some incidental hardships, to be sure, but the end in view was
protection of American lives and property. Madison was not quite
candid, nevertheless, when he assured the British Minister that
the embargo was a precautionary measure only and not conceived
with hostile intent.

Chimerical this policy seemed to many contemporaries; chimerical
it has seemed to historians, and to us who have passed through
the World War. Yet in the World War it was the possession of food
stuffs and raw materials by the United States which gave her a
dominating position in the councils of the Allies. Had her
commerce in 1807 been as necessary to England and France as it
was "at the very peak" of the World War, Thomas Jefferson might
have proved that peaceable coercion is an effective alternative
to war; but he overestimated the magnitude and importance of the
carrying trade of the United States, and erred still more
grievously in assuming that a public conscience existed which
would prove superior to the temptation to evade the law.
Jefferson dreaded war quite as much because of its concomitants
as because of its inevitable brutality, quite as much because it
tended to exalt government and to produce corruption as because
it maimed bodies and sacrificed human lives. Yet he never took
fully into account the possible accompaniments of his alternative
to war. That the embargo would debauch public morals and make
government arbitrary, he was to learn only by bitter experience
and personal humiliation.

Just after the passage of this momentous act, Canning's special
envoy, George Rose, arrived in the United States. A British
diplomat of the better sort, with much dignity of manner and
suave courtesy, he was received with more than ordinary
consideration by the Administration. He was commissioned, every
one supposed, to offer reparation for the Chesapeake affair. Even
after he had notified Madison that his instructions bade him
insist, as an indispensable preliminary, on the recall of the
President's Chesapeake proclamation, he was treated with
deference and assured that the President was prepared to comply,
if he could do so without incurring the charge of inconsistency
and disregard of national honor. Madison proposed to put a
proclamation of recall in Rose's hands, duly signed by the
President and dated so as to correspond with the day on which all
differences should be adjusted. Rose consented to this course and
the proclamation was delivered into his hands. He then divulged
little by little his further instructions, which were such as no
self-respecting administration could listen to with composure.
Canning demanded a formal disavowal of Commodore Barron's conduct
in encouraging deserters from His Majesty's service and harboring
them on board his ship. "You will state," read Rose's
instructions, "that such disavowals, solemnly expressed, would
afford to His Majesty a satisfactory pledge on the part of the
American Government that the recurrence of similar causes will
not on any occasion impose on His Majesty the necessity of
authorizing those means of force to which Admiral Berkeley has
resorted without authority, but which the continued repetition of
such provocations as unfortunately led to the attack upon the
Chesapeake might render necessary, as a just reprisal on the part
of His Majesty." No doubt Rose did his best to soften the tone of
these instructions, but he could not fail to make them clear; and
Madison, who had conducted these informal interviews, slowly
awoke to the real nature of what he was asked to do. He closed
further negotiations with the comment that the United States
could not be expected "to make, as it were, an expiatory
sacrifice to obtain redress, or beg for reparation." The
Administration determined to let the disavowal of Berkeley
suffice for the present and to allow the matter of reparation to
await further developments. The coercive policy on which the
Administration had now launched would, it was confidently
believed, bring His Majesty's Government to terms.

The very suggestion of an embargo had an unexpected effect upon
American shipmasters. To avoid being shut up in port, fleets of
ships put out to sea half-manned, half-laden, and often without
clearance papers. With freight rates soaring to unheard-of
altitudes, ship-owners were willing to assume all the risks of
the sea--British frigates included. So little did they appreciate
the protection offered by a benevolent government that they
assumed an attitude of hostility to authority and evaded the
exactions of the law in every conceivable way. Under guise of
engaging in the coasting trade, many a ship landed her cargo in a
foreign port; a brisk traffic also sprang up across the Canadian
border; and Amelia Island in St. Mary's River, Florida, became a
notorious mart for illicit commerce. Almost at once Congress was
forced to pass supplementary acts, conferring upon collectors of
ports powers of inspection and regulation which Gallatin
unhesitatingly pronounced both odious and dangerous. The
President affixed his signature ruefully to acts which increased
the army, multiplied the number of gunboats under construction,
and appropriated a million and a quarter dollars to the
construction of coast defenses and the equipment of militia.
"This embargo act," he confessed, "is certainly the most
embarrassing we ever had to execute. I did not expect a crop of
so sudden and rank growth of fraud and open opposition by force
could have grown up in the United States."

The worst feature of the experiment was its ineffectiveness. The
inhibition of commerce had so slight an effect upon England that
when Pinkney approached Canning with the proposal of a quid pro
quo-- the United States to rescind the embargo, England to revoke
her orders-in-council--he was told with biting sarcasm that "if
it were possible to make any sacrifice for the repeal of the
embargo without appearing to deprecate it as a measure of
hostility, he would gladly have facilitated its removal AS A
licensing American vessels, indeed, which had either slipped out
of port before the embargo or evaded the collectors, the British
Government was even profiting by this measure of restriction. It
was these vagrant vessels which gave Napoleon his excuse for the
Bayonne decree of April 17, 1808, when with a stroke of the pen
he ordered the seizure of all American ships in French ports and
swept property to the value of ten million dollars into the
imperial exchequer. Since these vessels were abroad in violation
of the embargo, he argued, they could not be American craft but
must be British ships in disguise. General Armstrong, writing
from Paris, warned the Secretary of State not to expect that the
embargo would do more than keep the United States at peace with
the belligerents. As a coercive measure, its effect was nil.
"Here it is not felt, and in England . . . it is forgotten."

Before the end of the year the failure of the embargo was patent
to every fair-minded observer. Men might differ ever so much as
to the harm wrought by the embargo abroad; but all agreed that it
was not bringing either France or England to terms, and that it
was working real hardship at home. Federalists in New England,
where nearly one-third of the ships in the carrying trade were
owned, pointed to the schooners "rotting at their wharves," to
the empty shipyards and warehouses, to the idle sailors wandering
in the streets of port towns, and asked passionately how long
they must be sacrificed to the theories of this charlatan in the
White House. Even Southern Republicans were asking uneasily when
the President would realize that the embargo was ruining planters
who could not market their cotton and tobacco. And Republicans
whose pockets were not touched were soberly questioning whether a
policy that reduced the annual value of exports from $108,000,000
to $22,000,000, and cut the national revenue in half, had not
been tested long enough.

Indications multiplied that "the dictatorship of Mr. Jefferson"
was drawing to a close. In 1808, after the election of Madison as
his successor, he practically abdicated as leader of his party,
partly out of an honest conviction that he ought not to commit
the President-elect by any positive course of action, and partly
no doubt out of a less praiseworthy desire not to admit the
defeat of his cherished principle. His abdication left the party
without resolute leadership at a critical moment. Madison and
Gallatin tried to persuade their party associates to continue the
embargo until June, and then, if concessions were not
forthcoming, to declare war; but they were powerless to hold the
Republican majority together on this programme. Setting aside the
embargo and returning to the earlier policy of non-intercourse,
Congress adopted a measure which excluded all English and French
vessels and imports, but which authorized the President to renew
trade with either country if it should mend its ways. On March 1,
1809, with much bitterness of spirit, Thomas Jefferson signed the
bill which ended his great experiment. Martha Jefferson once
said of her father that he never gave up a friend or an opinion.
A few months before his death, he alluded to the embargo, with
the pathetic insistence of old age, as "a measure, which,
persevered in a little longer . . . would have effected its
object completely."


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 IMPOSSIBLE for 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

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

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

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

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

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