Administration, though he had given the President a momentary advantage over the opposition. Another crisis was fast approaching. When Congress met a month earlier than usual, pursuant to the call of the President, the leadership passed from the Administration to a group of men who had lost all faith in commercial restrictions as a weapon of defense against foreign aggression.
CHAPTER X. THE WAR-HAWKS
Among the many unsolved problems which Jefferson bequeathed to his successor in office was that of the southern frontier. Running like a shuttle through the warp of his foreign policy had been his persistent desire to acquire possession of the Spanish Floridas. This dominant desire, amounting almost to a passion, had mastered even his better judgment and had created dilemmas from which he did not escape without the imputation of duplicity. On his retirement he announced that he was leaving all these concerns “to be settled by my friend, Mr. Madison,” yet he could not resist the desire to direct the course of his successor. Scarcely a month after he left office he wrote, “I suppose the conquest of Spain will soon force a delicate question on you as to the Floridas and Cuba, which will offer themselves to you. Napoleon will certainly give his consent without difficulty to our receiving the Floridas, and with some difficulty possibly Cuba.”
In one respect Jefferson’s intuition was correct. The attempt of Napoleon to subdue Spain and to seat his brother Joseph once again on the throne of Ferdinand VII was a turning point in the history of the Spanish colonies in America. One by one they rose in revolt and established revolutionary juntas either in the name of their deposed King or in professed cooperation with the insurrectionary government which was resisting the invader. Events proved that independence was the inevitable issue of all these uprisings from the Rio de la Plata to the Rio Grande.
In common with other Spanish provinces, West Florida felt the impact of this revolutionary spirit, but it lacked natural unity and a dominant Spanish population. The province was in fact merely a strip of coast extending from the Perdido River to the Mississippi, indented with bays into which great rivers from the north discharged their turgid waters. Along these bays and rivers were scattered the inhabitants, numbering less than one hundred thousand, of whom a considerable portion had come from the States. There, as always on the frontier, land had been a lodestone attracting both the speculator and the homeseeker. In the parishes of West Feliciana and Baton Rouge, in the alluvial bottoms of the Mississippi, and in the settlements around Mobile Bay, American settlers predominated, submitting with ill grace to the exactions of Spanish officials who were believed to be as corrupt as they were inefficient.
If events had been allowed to take their natural course, West Florida would in all probability have fallen into the arms of the United States as Texas did three decades later. But the Virginia Presidents were too ardent suitors to await the slow progress of events; they meant to assist destiny. To this end President Jefferson had employed General Wilkinson, with indifferent success. President Madison found more trustworthy agents in Governor Claiborne of New Orleans and Governor Holmes of Mississippi, whose letters reveal the extent to which Madison was willing to meddle with destiny. “Nature had decreed the union of Florida with the United States,” Claiborne affirmed; but he was not so sure that nature could be left to execute her own decrees, for he strained every nerve to prepare the way for American intervention when the people of West Florida should declare themselves free from Spain. Holmes also was instructed to prepare for this eventuality and to cooperate with Claiborne in West Florida “in diffusing the impressions we wish to be made there.”
The anticipated insurrection came off just when and where nature had decreed. In the summer of 1810 a so-called “movement for self-government” started at Bayou Sara and at Baton Rouge, where nine-tenths of the inhabitants were Americans. The leaders took pains to assure the Spanish Commandant that their motives were unimpeachable: nothing should be done which would in any wise conflict with the authority of their “loved and worthy sovereign, Don Ferdinand VII.” They wished to relieve the people of the abuses under which they were suffering, but all should be done in the name of the King. The Commandant, De Lassus, was not without his suspicions of these patriotic gentlemen but he allowed himself to be swept along in the current. The several movements finally coalesced on the 25th of July in a convention near Baton Rouge, which declared itself “legally constituted to act in all cases of national concern . . . with the consent of the governor” and professed a desire “to promote the safety, honor, and happiness of our beloved king” as well as to rectify abuses in the province. It adjourned with the familiar Spanish salutation which must have sounded ironical to the helpless De Lassus, “May God preserve you many years!” Were these pious professions farcical? Or were they the sincere utterances of men who, like the patriots of 1776, were driven by the march of events out of an attitude of traditional loyalty to the King into open defence of his authority?
The Commandant was thus thrust into a position where his every movement would be watched with distrust. The pretext for further action was soon given. An intercepted letter revealed that DeLassus had written to Governor Folch for an armed force. That “act of perfidy” was enough to dissolve the bond between the convention and the Commandant. On the 23d of September, under cover of night, an armed force shouting “Hurrah! Washington!” overpowered the garrison of the fort at Baton Rouge, and three days later the convention declared the independence of West Florida, “appealing to the Supreme Ruler of the World” for the rectitude of their intentions. What their intentions were is clear enough. Before the ink was dry on their declaration of independence, they wrote to the Administration at Washington, asking for the immediate incorporation of West Florida into the Union. Here was the blessed consummation of years of diplomacy near at hand. President Madison had only to reach out his hand and pluck the ripe fruit; yet he hesitated from constitutional scruples. Where was the authority which warranted the use of the army and navy to hold territory beyond the bounds of the United States? Would not intervention, indeed, be equivalent to an unprovoked attack on Spain, a declaration of war? He set forth his doubts in a letter to Jefferson and hinted at the danger which in the end was to resolve all his doubts. Was there not grave danger that West Florida would pass into the hands of a third and dangerous party? The conduct of Great Britain showed a propensity to fish in troubled waters.
On the 27th of October, President Madison issued a proclamation authorizing Governor Claiborne to take possession of West Florida and to govern it as part of the Orleans Territory. He justified his action, which had no precedent in American diplomacy, by reasoning which was valid only if his fundamental premise was accepted. West Florida, he repeated, as a part of the Louisiana purchase belonged to the United States; but without abandoning its claim, the United States had hitherto suffered Spain to continue in possession, looking forward to a satisfactory adjustment by friendly negotiation. A crisis had arrived, however, which had subverted Spanish authority; and the failure of the United States to take the territory would threaten the interests of all parties and seriously disturb the tranquillity of the adjoining territories. In the hands of the United States, West Florida would “not cease to be a subject of fair and friendly negotiation.” In his annual message President Madison spoke of the people of West Florida as having been “brought into the bosom of the American family,” and two days later Governor Claiborne formally took possession of the country to the Pearl River. How territory which had thus been incorporated could still remain a subject of fair negotiation does not clearly appear, except on the supposition that Spain would go through the forms of a negotiation which could have but one outcome.
The enemies of the Administration seized eagerly upon the flaws in the President’s logic, and pressed his defenders sorely in the closing session of the Eleventh Congress. Conspicuous among the champions of the Administration was young Henry Clay, then serving out the term of Senator Thurston of Kentucky who had resigned his office. This eloquent young lawyer, now in his thirty-third year, had been born and bred in the Old Dominion–a typical instance of the American boy who had nothing but his own head and hands wherewith to make his way in the world. He had a slender schooling, a much-abbreviated law education in a lawyer’s office, and little enough of that intellectual discipline needed for leadership at the bar; yet he had a clever wit, an engaging personality, and a rare facility in speaking, and he capitalized these assets. He was practising law in Lexington, Kentucky, when he was appointed to the Senate.
What this persuasive Westerner had to say on the American title to West Florida was neither new nor convincing; but what he advocated as an American policy was both bold and challenging. “The eternal principles of self preservation” justified in his mind the occupation of West Florida, irrespective of any title. With Cuba and Florida in the possession of a foreign maritime power, the immense extent of country watered by streams entering the Gulf would be placed at the mercy of that power. Neglect the proffered boon and some nation profiting by this error would seize this southern frontier. It had been intimated that Great Britain might take sides with Spain to resist the occupation of Florida. To this covert threat Clay replied,
“Sir, is the time never to arrive, when we may manage our own affairs without the fear of insulting his Britannic Majesty? Is the rod of British power to be forever suspended over our heads? Does the President refuse to continue a correspondence with a minister, who violates the decorum belonging to his diplomatic character, by giving and deliberately repeating an affront to the whole nation? We are instantly menaced with the chastisement which English pride will not fail to inflict. Whether we assert our rights by sea, or attempt their maintenance by land–whithersoever we turn ourselves, this phantom incessantly pursues us. Already has it had too much influence on the councils of the nation. It contributed to the repeal of the embargo–that dishonorable repeal, which has so much tarnished the character of our government. Mr. President, I have before said on this floor, and now take occasion to remark, that I most sincerely desire peace and amity with England; that I even prefer an adjustment of all differences with her, before one with any other nation. But if she persists in a denial of justice to us, or if she avails herself of the occupation of West Florida, to commence war upon us, I trust and hope that all hearts will unite, in a bold and vigorous vindication of our rights.
“I am not, sir, in favour of cherishing the passion of conquest. But I must be permitted, in conclusion, to indulge the hope of seeing, ere long, the NEW United States (if you will allow me the expression) embracing, not only the old thirteen States, but the entire country east of the Mississippi, including East Florida, and some of the territories of the north of us also.”
Conquest was not a familiar word in the vocabulary of James Madison, and he may well have prayed to be delivered from the hands of his friends, if this was to be the keynote of their defense of his policy in West Florida. Nevertheless, he was impelled in spite of himself in the direction of Clay’s vision. If West Florida in the hands of an unfriendly power was a menace to the southern frontier, East Florida from the Perdido to the ocean was not less so. By the 3d of January, 1811, he was prepared to recommend secretly to Congress that he should be authorized to take temporary possession of East Florida, in case the local authorities should consent or a foreign power should attempt to occupy it. And Congress came promptly to his aid with the desired authorization.
Twelve months had now passed since the people of the several States had expressed a judgment at the polls by electing a new Congress. The Twelfth Congress was indeed new in more senses than one. Some seventy representatives took their seats for the first time, and fully half of the familiar faces were missing. Its first and most significant act, betraying a new spirit, was the choice as Speaker of Henry Clay, who had exchanged his seat in the Senate for the more stirring arena of the House. In all the history of the House there is only one other instance of the choice of a new member as Speaker. It was not merely a personal tribute to Clay but an endorsement of the forward-looking policy which he had so vigorously championed in the Senate. The temper of the House was bold and aggressive, and it saw its mood reflected in the mobile face of the young Kentuckian.
The Speaker of the House had hitherto followed English traditions, choosing rather to stand as an impartial moderator than to act as a legislative leader. For British traditions of any sort Clay had little respect. He was resolved to be the leader of the House, and if necessary to join his privileges as Speaker to his rights as a member, in order to shape the policies of Congress. Almost his first act as Speaker was to appoint to important committees those who shared his impatience with commercial restrictions as a means of coercing Great Britain. On the Committee on Foreign Relations–second to none in importance at this moment–he placed Peter B. Porter of New York, young John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Felix Grundy of Tennessee; the chairmanship of the Committee on Naval Affairs he gave to Langdon Cheves of South Carolina; and the chairmanship of the Committee on Military Affairs, to another South Carolinian, David Williams. There was nothing fortuitous in this selection of representatives from the South and Southwest for important committee posts. Like Clay himself, these young intrepid spirits were solicitous about the southern frontier–about the ultimate disposal of the Floridas; like Clay, they had lost faith in temporizing policies; like Clay, they were prepared for battle with the old adversary if necessary.
In the President’s message of November 5, 1811, there was just one passage which suited the mood of this group of younger Republicans. After a recital of injuries at the hands of the British ministry, Madison wrote with unwonted vigor: “With this evidence of hostile inflexibility in trampling on rights which no independent nation can relinquish Congress will feel the duty of putting the United States into an armor and an attitude demanded by the crisis; and corresponding with the national spirit and expectations.” It was this part of the message which the Committee on Foreign Relations took for the text of its report. The time had arrived, in the opinion of the committee, when forbearance ceased to be a virtue and when Congress must as a sacred duty “call forth the patriotism and resources of the country.” Nor did the committee hesitate to point out the immediate steps to be taken if the country were to be put into a state of preparedness. Let the ranks of the regular army be filled and ten regiments added; let the President call for fifty thousand volunteers; let all available war-vessels be put in commission; and let merchant vessels arm in their own defense.
If these recommendations were translated into acts, they would carry the country appreciably nearer war; but the members of the committee were not inclined to shrink from the consequences. To a man they agreed that war was preferable to inglorious submission to continued outrages, and that the outcome of war would be positively advantageous. Porter, who represented the westernmost district of a State profoundly interested in the northern frontier, doubted not that Great Britain could be despoiled of her extensive provinces along the borders to the North. Grundy, speaking for the Southwest, contemplated with satisfaction the time when the British would be driven from the continent. “I feel anxious,” he concluded, “not only to add the Floridas to the South, but the Canadas to the North of this Empire.” Others, like Calhoun, who now made his entrance as a debater, refused to entertain these mercenary calculations. “Sir,” exclaimed Calhoun, his deep-set eyes flashing, “I only know of one principle to make a nation great, to produce in this country not the form but the real spirit of union, and that is, to protect every citizen in the lawful pursuit of his business. . . Protection and patriotism are reciprocal.”
But these young Republicans marched faster than the rank and file. Not so lightly were Jeffersonian traditions to be thrown aside. The old Republican prejudice against standing armies and seagoing navies still survived. Four weary months of discussion produced only two measures of military importance, one of which provided for the addition to the army of twenty-five thousand men enlisted for five years, and the other for the calling into service of fifty thousand state militia. The proposal of the naval committee to appropriate seven and a half million dollars to build a new navy was voted down; Gallatin’s urgent appeal for new taxes fell upon deaf ears; and Congress proposed to meet the new military expenditure by the dubious expedient of a loan of eleven million dollars.
A hesitation which seemed fatal paralyzed all branches of the Federal Government in the spring months. Congress was obviously reluctant to follow the lead of the radicals who clamored for war with Great Britain. The President was unwilling to recommend a declaration of war, though all evidence points to the conclusion that he and his advisers believed war inevitable. The nation was divided in sentiment, the Federalists insisting with some plausibility that France was as great an offender as Great Britain and pointing to the recent captures of American merchantmen by French cruisers as evidence that the decrees had not been repealed. Even the President was impressed by these unfriendly acts and soberly discussed with his mentor at Monticello the possibility of war with both France and England. There was a moment in March, indeed, when he was disposed to listen to moderate Republicans who advised him to send a special mission to England as a last chance.
What were the considerations which fixed the mind of the nation and of Congress upon war with Great Britain? Merely to catalogue the accumulated grievances of a decade does not suffice. Nations do not arrive at decisions by mathematical computation of injuries received, but rather because of a sense of accumulated wrongs which may or may not be measured by losses in life and property. And this sense of wrongs is the more acute in proportion to the racial propinquity of the offender. The most bitter of all feuds are those between peoples of the same blood. It was just because the mother country from which Americans had won their independence was now denying the fruits of that independence that she became the object of attack. In two particulars was Great Britain offending and France not. The racial differences between French and American seamen were too conspicuous to countenance impressment into the navy of Napoleon. No injuries at the hands of France bore any similarity to the Chesapeake outrage. Nor did France menace the frontier and the frontier folk of the United States by collusion with the Indians.
To suppose that the settlers beyond the Alleghanies were eager to fight Great Britain solely for “free trade and sailors’ rights” is to assume a stronger consciousness of national unity than existed anywhere in the United States at this time. These western pioneers had stronger and more immediate motives for a reckoning with the old adversary. Their occupation of the Northwest had been hindered at every turn by the red man, who, they believed, had been sustained in his resistance directly by British traders and indirectly by the British Government. Documents now abundantly prove that the suspicion was justified. The key to the early history of the northwestern frontier is the fur trade. It was for this lucrative traffic that England retained so long the western posts which she had agreed to surrender by the Peace of Paris. Out of the region between the Illinois, the Wabash, the Ohio, and Lake Erie, pelts had been shipped year after year to the value annually of some 100,000 pounds, in return for the products of British looms and forges. It was the constant aim of the British trader in the Northwest to secure “the exclusive advantages of a valuable trade during Peace and the zealous assistance of brave and useful auxiliaries in time of War.” To dispossess the redskin of his lands and to wrest the fur trade from British control was the equally constant desire of every full-blooded Western American. Henry Clay voiced this desire when he exclaimed in the speech already quoted, “The conquest of Canada is in your power . . . . Is it nothing to extinguish the torch that lights up savage warfare? Is it nothing to acquire the entire fur-trade connected with that country, and to destroy the temptation and opportunity of violating your revenue and other laws?”*
* A memorial of the fur traders of Canada to the Secretary of State for War and Colonies (1814), printed as Appendix N to Davidson’s “The North West Company,” throws much light on this obscure feature of Western history. See also an article on “The Insurgents of 1811,” in the American Historical Association “Report” (1911) by D. R. Anderson.
The Twelfth Congress had met under the shadow of an impending catastrophe in the Northwest. Reports from all sources pointed to an Indian war of considerable magnitude. Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet had formed an Indian confederacy which was believed to embrace not merely the tribes of the Northwest but also the Creeks and Seminoles of the Gulf region. Persistent rumors strengthened long-nourished suspicions and connected this Indian unrest with the British agents on the Canadian border. In the event of war, so it was said, the British paymasters would let the redskins loose to massacre helpless women and children. Old men retold the outrages of these savage fiends during the War of Independence.
On the 7th of November–three days after the assembling of Congress–Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory encountered the Indians of Tecumseh’s confederation at Tippecanoe and by a costly but decisive victory crushed the hopes of their chieftains. As the news of these events drifted into Washington, it colored perceptibly the minds of those who doubted whether Great Britain or France were the greater offender. Grundy, who had seen three brothers killed by Indians and his mother reduced from opulence to poverty in a single night, spoke passionately of that power which was taking every “opportunity of intriguing with our Indian neighbors and setting on the ruthless savages to tomahawk our women and children.” “War,” he exclaimed, “is not to commence by sea or land, it is already begun, and some of the richest blood of our country has been shed.”
Still the President hesitated to lead. On the 3lst of March, to be sure, he suffered Monroe to tell a committee of the House that he thought war should be declared before Congress adjourned and that he was willing to recommend an embargo if Congress would agree; but after an embargo for ninety days had been declared on the 4th of April, he told the British Minister that it was not, could not be considered, a war measure. He still waited for Congress to shoulder the responsibility of declaring war. Why did he hesitate? Was he aware of the woeful state of unpreparedness everywhere apparent and was he therefore desirous of delay? Some color is given to this excuse by his efforts to persuade Congress to create two assistant secretaryships of war. Or was he conscious of his own inability to play the role of War-President?
The personal question which thrust itself upon Madison at this time was, indeed, whether he would have a second term of office. An old story, often told by his detractors, recounts a dramatic incident which is said to have occurred, just as the congressional caucus of the party was about to meet. A committee of Republican Congressmen headed by Mr. Speaker Clay waited upon the President to tell him, that if he wished a renomination, he must agree to recommend a declaration of war. The story has never been corroborated; and the dramatic interview probably never occurred; yet the President knew, as every one knew, that his renomination was possible only with the support of the war party. When he accepted the nomination from the Republican caucus on the 18th of May, he tacitly pledged himself to acquiesce in the plans of the war-hawks. Some days later an authentic interview did take place between the President and a deputation of Congressmen headed by the Speaker, in the course of which the President was assured of the support of Congress if he would recommend a declaration. Subsequent events point to a complete understanding.
Clay now used all the latent powers of his office to aid the war party. Even John Randolph, ever a thorn in the side of the party, was made to wince. On the 9th of May, Randolph undertook to address the House on the declaration of war which, he had been credibly informed, was imminent. He was called to order by a member because no motion was before the House. He protested that his remarks were prefatory to a motion. The Speaker ruled that he must first make a motion. “My proposition is,” responded Randolph sullenly, “that it is not expedient at this time to resort to a war against Great Britain.” “Is the motion seconded?” asked the Speaker. Randolph protested that a second was not needed and appealed from the decision of the chair. Then, when the House sustained the Speaker, Randolph, having found a seconder, once more began to address the House. Again he was called to order; the House must first vote to consider the motion. Randolph was beside himself with rage. The last vestige of liberty of speech was vanishing, he declared. But Clay was imperturbable. The question of consideration was put and lost. Randolph had found his master.
On the 1st of June the President sent to Congress what is usually denominated a war message; yet it contained no positive recommendation of war. “Congress must decide,” said the President, “whether the United States shall continue passive” or oppose force to force. Prefaced to this impotent conclusion was a long recital of “progressive usurpations” and “accumulating wrongs”–a recital which had become so familiar in state papers as almost to lose its power to provoke popular resentment. It was significant, however, that the President put in the forefront of his catalogue of wrongs the impressment of American sailors on the high seas. No indignity touched national pride so keenly and none so clearly differentiated Great Britain from France as the national enemy. Almost equally provocative was the harassing of incoming and outgoing vessels by British cruisers which hovered off the coasts and even committed depredations within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Pretended blockades without an adequate force was a third charge against the British Government, and closely connected with it that “sweeping system of blockades, under the name of orders-in-council,” against which two Republican Administrations had struggled in vain.
There was in the count not an item, indeed, which could not have been charged against Great Britain in the fall of 1807, when the public clamored for war after the Chesapeake outrage. Four long years had been spent in testing the efficacy of commercial restrictions, and the country was if anything less prepared for the alternative. When President Madison penned this message he was, in fact, making public avowal of the breakdown of a great Jeffersonian principle. Peaceful coercion was proved to be an idle dream.
So well advised was the Committee on Foreign Relations to which the President’s message was referred that it could present a long report two days later, again reviewing the case against the adversary in great detail. “The contest which is now forced on the United States,” it concluded, “is radically a contest for their sovereignty and independency.” There was now no other alternative than an immediate appeal to arms. On the same day Calhoun introduced a bill declaring war against Great Britain; and on the 4th of June in secret session the war party mustered by the Speaker bore down all opposition and carried the bill by a vote of 79 to 49. On the 7th of June the Senate followed the House by the close vote of 19 to 14; and on the following day the President promptly signed the bill which marked the end of an epoch.
It is one of the bitterest ironies in history that just twenty-four hours before war was declared at Washington, the new Ministry at Westminster announced its intention of immediately suspending the orders-in-council. Had President Madison yielded to those moderates who advised him in April to send a minister to England, he might have been apprized of that gradual change in public opinion which was slowly undermining the authority of Spencer Perceval’s ministry and commercial system. He had only to wait a little longer to score the greatest diplomatic triumph of his generation; but fate willed otherwise. No ocean cable flashed the news of the abrupt change which followed the tragic assassination of Perceval and the formation of a new ministry. When the slow-moving packets brought the tidings, war had begun.
CHAPTER XI. PRESIDENT MADISON UNDER FIRE
The dire calamity which Jefferson and his colleagues had for ten years bent all their energies to avert had now befallen the young Republic. War, with all its train of attendant evils, stalked upon the stage, and was about to test the hearts of pacifist and war-hawk alike. But nothing marked off the younger Republicans more sharply from the generation to which Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin belonged than the positive relief with which they hailed this break with Jeffersonian tradition. This attitude was something quite different from the usual intrepidity of youth in the face of danger; it was bottomed upon the conviction which Clay expressed when he answered the question, “What are we to gain by the war?” by saying, “What are we not to lose by peace? Commerce, character, a nation’s best treasure, honor!” Calhoun had reached the same conclusion. The restrictive system as a means of resistance and of obtaining redress for wrongs, he declared to be unsuited to the genius of the American people. It required the most arbitrary laws; it rendered government odious; it bred discontent. War, on the other hand, strengthened the national character, fed the flame of patriotism, and perfected the organization of government. “Sir,” he exclaimed, “I would prefer a single Victory over the enemy by sea or land to all the good we shall ever derive from the continuation of the non-importation act!” The issue was thus squarely faced: the alternative to peaceable coercion was now to be given a trial.
Scarcely less remarkable was the buoyant spirit with which these young Republicans faced the exigencies of war. Defeat was not to be found in their vocabulary. Clay pictured in fervent rhetoric a victorious army dictating the terms of peace at Quebec or at Halifax; Calhoun scouted the suggestion of unpreparedness, declaring that in four weeks after the declaration of war the whole of Upper and part of Lower Canada would be in our possession; and even soberer patriots believed that the conquest of Canada was only a matter of marching across the frontier to Montreal or Quebec. But for that matter older heads were not much wiser as prophets of military events. Even Jefferson assured the President that he had never known a war entered into under more favorable auspices, and predicted that Great Britain would surely be stripped of all her possessions on this continent; while Monroe seems to have anticipated a short decisive war terminating in a satisfactory accommodation with England. As for the President, he averred many years later that while he knew the unprepared state of the country, “he esteemed it necessary to throw forward the flag of the country, sure that the people would press onward and defend it.”
There is something at once humorous and pathetic in this self-portrait of Madison throwing forward the flag of his country and summoning his legions to follow on. Never was a man called to lead in war who had so little of the martial in his character, and yet so earnest a purpose to rise to the emergency. An observer describes him, the day after war was declared, “visiting in person–a thing never known before–all the offices of the Departments of War and the Navy, stimulating everything in a manner worthy of a little commander-in-chief, with his little round hat and huge cockade.” Stimulation was certainly needed in these two departments as events proved, but attention to petty details which should have been watched by subordinates is not the mark of a great commander. Jefferson afterward consoled Madison for the defeat of his armies by writing: “All you can do is to order–execution must depend on others and failures be imputed to them alone.” Jefferson failed to perceive what Madison seems always to have forgotten, that a commander-in-chief who appoints and may remove his subordinates can never escape responsibility for their failures. The President’s first duty was not to stimulate the performance of routine in the departments but to make sure of the competence of the executive heads of those departments.
William Eustis of Massachusetts, Secretary of War, was not without some little military experience, having served as a surgeon in the Revolutionary army, but he lacked every qualification for the onerous task before him. Senator Crawford of Georgia wrote to Monroe caustically that Eustis should have been forming general and comprehensive arrangements for the organization of the troops and for the prosecution of campaigns, instead of consuming his time reading advertisements of petty retailing merchants, to find where he could purchase one hundred shoes or two hundred hats. Of Paul Hamilton, the Secretary of Navy, even less could be expected, for he seems to have had absolutely no experience to qualify him for the post. Senator Crawford intimated that in instructing his naval officers Hamilton impressed upon them the desirability of keeping their superiors supplied with pineapples and other tropical fruits -an ill-natured comment which, true or not, gives us the measure of the man. Both Monroe and Gallatin shared the prevailing estimate of the Secretaries of War and of the Navy and expressed themselves without reserve to Jefferson; but the President with characteristic indecision hesitated to purge his Cabinet of these two incompetents, and for his want of decision he paid dearly.
The President had just left the Capital for his country place at Montpelier toward the end of August, when the news came that General William Hull, who had been ordered to invade Upper Canada and begin the military promenade to Quebec, had surrendered Detroit and his entire army without firing a gun. It was a crushing disaster and a well-deserved rebuke for the Administration, for whether the fault was Hull’s or Eustis’s, the President had to shoulder the responsibility. His first thought was to retrieve the defeat by commissioning Monroe to command a fresh army for the capture of Detroit; but this proposal which appealed strongly to Monroe had to be put aside–fortunately for all concerned, for Monroe’s desire for military glory was probably not equalled by his capacity as a commander and the western campaign proved incomparably more difficult than wiseacres at Washington imagined.
What was needed, indeed, was not merely able commanders in the field, though they were difficult enough to find. There was much truth in Jefferson’s naive remark to Madison: “The creator has not thought proper to mark those on the forehead who are of the stuff to make good generals. We are first, therefore, to seek them, blindfold, and then let them learn the trade at the expense of great losses.” But neither seems to have comprehended that their opposition to military preparedness had caused this dearth of talent and was now forcing the Administration to select blindfold. More pressing even than the need of tacticians was the need of organizers of victory. The utter failure of the Niagara campaign vacated the office of Secretary of War; and with Eustis retired also the Secretary of the Navy. Monroe took over the duties of the one temporarily, and William Jones, a shipowner of Philadelphia, succeeded Hamilton.
If the President seriously intended to make Monroe Secretary of War and the head of the General Staff, he speedily discovered that he was powerless to do so. The Republican leaders in New York felt too keenly Josiah Quincy’s taunt about a despotic Cabinet “composed, to all efficient purposes, of two Virginians and a foreigner” to permit Monroe to absorb two cabinet posts. To appease this jealousy of Virginia, Madison made an appointment which very nearly shipwrecked his Administration: he invited General John Armstrong of New York to become Secretary of War. Whatever may be said of Armstrong’s qualifications for the post, his presence in the Cabinet was most inadvisable, for he did not and could not inspire the personal confidence of either Gallatin or Monroe. Once in office, he turned Monroe into a relentless enemy and fairly drove Gallatin out of office in disgust by appointing his old enemy, William Duane, editor of the Aurora, to the post of Adjutant-General. “And Armstrong!”–said Dallas who subsequently as Secretary of War knew whereof he spoke –“he was the devil from the beginning, is now, and ever will be!”
The man of clearest vision in these unhappy months of 1812 was undoubtedly Albert Gallatin. The defects of Madison as a War-President he had long foreseen; the need of reorganizing the Executive Departments he had pointed out as soon as war became inevitable; and the problem of financing the war he had attacked farsightedly, fearlessly, and without regard to political consistency. No one watched the approach of hostilities with a bitterer sense of blasted hopes. For ten years he had labored to limit expenditures, sacrificing even the military and naval establishments, that the people might be spared the burden of needless taxes;–and within this decade he had also scaled down the national debt one-half, so that posterity might not be saddled with burdens not of its own choosing. And now war threatened to undo his work. The young republic was after all not to lead its own life, realize a unique destiny, but to tread the old well-worn path of war, armaments, and high-handed government. Well, he would save what he could, do his best to avert “perpetual taxation, military establishments, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions.”
If Gallatin at first underrated the probable revenue for war purposes, he speedily confessed his error and set before Congress inexorably the necessity for new taxes-aye, even for an internal tax, which he had once denounced as loudly as any Republican. For more than a year after the declaration of war, Congress was deaf to pleas for new sources of revenue; and it was not, indeed, until the last year of the war that it voted the taxes which in the long run could alone support the public credit. Meantime, facing a depleted Treasury, Gallatin found himself reduced to a mere “dealer of loans”–a position utterly abhorrent to him. Even his efforts to place the loans which Congress authorized must have failed but for the timely aid of three men whom Quincy would have contemptuously termed foreigners, for all like Gallatin were foreign-born–Astor, Girard, and Parish. Utterly weary of his thankless job, Gallatin seized upon the opportunity afforded by the Russian offer of mediation to leave the Cabinet and perhaps to end the war by a diplomatic stroke. He asked and received an appointment as one of the three American commissioners.
If Madison really believed that the people of the United States would unitedly press onward and defend the flag when once he had thrown it forward, he must have been strangely insensitive to the disaffection in New England. Perhaps, like Jefferson in the days of the embargo, he mistook the spirit of this opposition, thinking that it was largely partisan clamor which could safely be disregarded. What neither of these Virginians appreciated was the peculiar fanatical and sectional character of this Federalist opposition, and the extremes to which it would go. Yet abundant evidence lay before their eyes. Thirty-four Federalist members of the House, nearly all from New England, issued an address to their constituents bitterly arraigning the Administration and deploring the declaration of war; the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, following this example, published another address, denouncing the war as a wanton sacrifice of the best interests of the people and imploring all good citizens to meet in town and county assemblies to protest and to resolve not to volunteer except for a defensive war; and a meeting of citizens of Rockingham County, New Hampshire, adopted a memorial drafted by young Daniel Webster, which hinted that the separation of the States–“an event fraught with incalculable evils”–might sometime occur on just such an occasion as this. Town after town, and county after county, took up the hue and cry, keeping well within the limits of constitutional opposition, it is true, but weakening the arm of the Government just when it should have struck the enemy effective blows.
Nor was the President without enemies in his own political household. The Republicans of New York, always lukewarm in their support of the Virginia Dynasty, were now bent upon preventing his reelection. They found a shrewd and not overscrupulous leader in DeWitt Clinton and an adroit campaign manager in Martin Van Buren. Both belonged to that school of New York politicians of which Burr had been master. Anything to beat Madison was their cry. To this end they were willing to condemn the war-policy, to promise a vigorous prosecution of the war, and even to negotiate for peace. What made this division in the ranks of the Republicans so serious was the willingness of the New England Federalists to make common cause with Clinton. In September a convention of Federalists endorsed his nomination for the Presidency.
Under the weight of accumulating disasters, military and political, it seemed as though Madison must go down in defeat. Every New England State but Vermont cast its electoral votes for Clinton; all the Middle States but Pennsylvania also supported him; and Maryland divided its vote. Only the steadiness of the Southern Republicans and of Pennsylvania saved Madison; a change of twenty electoral votes would have ended the Virginia Dynasty.* Now at least Madison must have realized the poignant truth which the Federalists were never tired of repeating: he had entered upon the war as President of a divided people.
* In the electoral vote Madison received 128; Clinton, 89.
Only a few months’ experience was needed to convince the military authorities at Washington that the war must be fought mainly by volunteers. Every military consideration derived from American history warned against this policy, it is true, but neither Congress nor the people would entertain for an instant the thought of conscription. Only with great reluctance and under pressure had Congress voted to increase the regular army and to authorize the President to raise fifty thousand volunteers. The results of this legislation were disappointing, not to say humiliating. The conditions of enlistment were not such as to encourage recruiting; and even when the pay had been increased and the term of service shortened, few able-bodied citizens would respond. If any such desired to serve their country, they enrolled in the State militia which the President had been authorized to call into active service for six months.
In default of a well-disciplined regular army and an adequate volunteer force, the Administration was forced more and more to depend upon such quotas of militia as the States would supply. How precarious was the hold of the national Government upon the State forces, appeared in the first months of the war. When called upon to supply troops to relieve the regulars in the coast defenses, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut flatly refused, holding that the commanders of the State militia, and not the President, had the power to decide when exigencies demanded the use of the militia in the service of the United States. In his annual message Madison termed this “a novel and unfortunate exposition” of the Constitution, and he pointed out–what indeed was sufficiently obvious–that if the authority of the United States could be thus frustrated during actual war, “they are not one nation for the purpose most of all requiring it.” But what was the President to do? Even if he, James Madison, author of the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, could so forget his political creed as to conceive of coercing a sovereign state, where was the army which would do his bidding? The President was the victim of his own political theory.
These bitter revelations of 1812–the disaffection of New England, the incapacity of two of his secretaries, the disasters of his staff officers on the frontier, the slow recruiting, the defiance of Massachusetts and Connecticut–almost crushed the President. Never physically robust, he succumbed to an insidious intermittent fever in June and was confined to his bed for weeks. So serious was his condition that Mrs. Madison was in despair and scarcely left his side for five long weeks. “Even now,” she wrote to Mrs. Gallatin, at the end of July, “I watch over him as I would an infant, so precarious is his convalescence.” The rumor spread that he was not likely to survive, and politicians in Washington began to speculate on the succession to the Presidency.
But now and then a ray of hope shot through the gloom pervading the White House and Capitol. The stirring victory of the Constitution over the Guerriere in August, 1812, had almost taken the sting out of Hull’s surrender at Detroit, and other victories at sea followed, glorious in the annals of American naval warfare, though without decisive influence on the outcome of the war. Of much greater significance was Perry’s victory on Lake Erie in September, 1813, which opened the way to the invasion of Canada. This brilliant combat followed by the Battle of the Thames cheered the President in his slow convalescence. Encouraging, too, were the exploits of American privateers in British waters, but none of these events seemed likely to hasten the end of the war. Great Britain had already declined the Russian offer of mediation.
Last day but one of the year 1813 a British schooner, the Bramble, came into the port of Annapolis bearing an important official letter from Lord Castlereagh to the Secretary of State. With what eager and anxious hands Monroe broke the seal of this letter may be readily imagined. It might contain assurances of a desire for peace; it might indefinitely prolong the war. In truth the letter pointed both ways. Castlereagh had declined to accept the good offices of Russia, but he was prepared to begin direct negotiations for peace. Meantime the war must go on–with the chances favoring British arms, for the Bramble had also brought the alarming news of Napoleon’s defeat on the plains of Leipzig. Now for the first time Great Britain could concentrate all her efforts upon the campaign in North America. No wonder the President accepted Castlereagh’s offer with alacrity. To the three commissioners sent to Russia, he added Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell and bade them Godspeed while he nerved himself to meet the crucial year of the war.
Had the President been fully apprized of the elaborate plans of the British War Office, his anxieties would have been multiplied many times. For what resources had the Government to meet invasion on three frontiers? The Treasury was again depleted; new loans brought in insufficient funds to meet current expenses; recruiting was slack because the Government could not compete with the larger bounties offered by the States; by summer the number of effective regular troops was only twenty-seven thousand all told. With this slender force, supplemented by State levies, the military authorities were asked to repel invasion. The Administration had not yet drunk the bitter dregs of the cup of humiliation.
That some part of the invading British forces might be detailed to attack the Capital was vaguely divined by the President and his Cabinet; but no adequate measures had been taken for the defense of the city when, on a fatal August day, the British army marched upon it. The humiliating story of the battle of Bladensburg has been told elsewhere. The disorganized mob which had been hastily assembled to check the advance of the British was utterly routed almost under the eyes of the President, who with feelings not easily described found himself obliged to join the troops fleeing through the city. No personal humiliation was spared the President and his family. Dolly Madison, never once doubting that the noise of battle which reached the White House meant an American victory, stayed calmly indoors until the rush of troops warned her of danger. She and her friends were then swept along in the general rout. She was forced to leave her personal effects behind, but her presence of mind saved one treasure in the White House–a large portrait of General Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart. That priceless portrait and the plate were all that survived. The fleeing militiamen had presence of mind enough to save a large quantity of the wine by drinking it, and what was left, together with the dinner on the table, was consumed by Admiral Cockburn and his staff. By nightfall the White House, the Treasury, and the War Office were in flames, and only a severe thunderstorm checked the conflagration.*
* Before passing judgment on the conduct of British officers and men in the capital, the reader should recall the equally indefensible outrages committed by American troops under General Dearborn in 1813, when the Houses of Parliament and other public buildings at York (Toronto) were pillaged and burned. See Kingsford’s “History of Canada,” VIII, pp. 259-61.
Heartsick and utterly weary, the President crossed the Potomac at about six o’clock in the evening and started westward in a carriage toward Montpelier. He had been in the saddle since early morning and was nearly spent. To fatigue was added humiliation, for he was forced to travel with a crowd of embittered fugitives and sleep in a forlorn house by the wayside. Next morning he overtook Mrs. Madison at an inn some sixteen miles from the Capital. Here they passed another day of humiliation, for refugees who had followed the same line of flight reviled the President for betraying them and the city. At midnight, alarmed at a report that the British were approaching, the President fled to another miserable refuge deeper in the Virginia woods. This fear of capture was quite unfounded, however, for the British troops had already evacuated the city and were marching in the opposite direction.
Two days later the President returned to the capital to collect his Cabinet and repair his shattered Government. He found public sentiment hot against the Administration for having failed to protect the city. He had even to fear personal violence, but he remained “tranquil as usual . . . though much distressed by the dreadful event which had taken place.” He was still more distressed, however, by the insistent popular clamor for a victim for punishment. All fingers pointed at Armstrong as the man responsible for the capture of the city. Armstrong offered to resign at once, but the President in distress would not hear of resignation. He would advise only “a temporary retirement” from the city to placate the inhabitants. So Armstrong departed, but by the time he reached Baltimore he realized the impossibility of his situation and sent his resignation to the President. The victim had been offered up. At his own request Monroe was now made Secretary of War, though he continued also to discharge the not very heavy duties of the State Department.
It was a disillusioned group of Congressmen who gathered in September, 1814, in special session at the President’s call. Among those who gazed sadly at the charred ruins of the Capitol were Calhoun, Cheves, and Grundy, whose voices had been loud for war and who had pictured their armies overrunning the British possessions. Clay was at this moment endeavoring to avert a humiliating surrender of American claims at Ghent. To the sting of defeated hopes was added physical discomfort. The only public building which had escaped the general conflagration was the Post and Patent Office. In these cramped quarters the two houses awaited the President’s message.
A visitor from another planet would have been strangely puzzled to make the President’s words tally with the havoc wrought by the enemy on every side. A series of achievements had given new luster to the American arms; “the pride of our naval arms had been amply supported”; the American people had “rushed with enthusiasm to the scenes where danger and duty call.” Not a syllable about the disaster at Washington! Not a word about the withdrawal of the Connecticut militia from national service, and the refusal of the Governor of Vermont to call out the militia just at the moment when Sir George Prevost began his invasion of New York; not a word about the general suspension of specie payment by all banks outside of New England; not a word about the failure of the last loan and the imminent bankruptcy of the Government. Only a single sentence betrayed the anxiety which was gnawing Madison’s heart: “It is not to be disguised that the situation of our country calls for its greatest efforts.” What the situation demanded, he left his secretaries to say.
The new Secretary of War seemed to be the one member of the Administration who was prepared to grapple with reality and who had the courage of his convictions. While Jefferson was warning him that it was nonsense to talk about a regular army, Monroe told Congress flatly that no reliance could be pled in the militia and that a permanent force of one hundred thousand men must be raised–raised by conscription if necessary. Throwing Virginian and Jeffersonian principles to the winds, he affirmed the constitutional right of Congress to draft citizens. The educational value of war must have been very great to bring Monroe to this conclusion, but Congress had not traveled so far. One by one Monroe’s alternative plans were laid aside; and the country, like a rudderless ship, drifted on.
An insuperable obstacle, indeed, prevented the establishment of any efficient national army at this time. Every plan encountered ultimately the inexorable fact that the Treasury was practically empty and the credit of the Government gone. Secretary Campbell’s report was a confession of failure to sustain public credit. Some seventy-four millions would be needed to carry the existing civil and military establishments for another year, and of this sum, vast indeed in those days, only twenty-four millions were in sight. Where the remaining fifty millions were to be found, the Secretary could not say. With this admission of incompetence Campbell resigned from office. On the 9th of November his successor, A. J. Dallas, notified holders of government securities at Boston that the Treasury could not meet its obligations.
It was at this crisis, when bankruptcy stared the Government in the face, that the Legislature of Massachusetts appointed delegates to confer with delegates from other New England legislatures on their common grievances and dangers and to devise means of security and defense. The Legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island responded promptly by appointing delegates to meet at Hartford on the 15th of December; and the proposed convention seemed to receive popular indorsement in the congressional elections, for with but two exceptions all the Congressmen chosen were Federalists. Hot-heads were discussing without any attempt at concealment the possibility of reconstructing the Federal Union. A new union of the good old Thirteen States on terms set by New England was believed to be well within the bounds of possibility. News-sheets referred enthusiastically to the erection of a new Federal edifice which should exclude the Western States. Little wonder that the harassed President in distant Washington was obsessed with the idea that New England was on the verge of secession.
William Wirt who visited Washington at this time has left a vivid picture of ruin and desolation:
“I went to look at the ruins of the President’s house. The rooms which you saw so richly furnished, exhibited nothing but unroofed naked walls, cracked, defaced, and blackened with fire. I cannot tell you what I felt as I walked amongst them . . . . I called on the President. He looks miserably shattered and wobegone. In short, he looked heartbroken. His mind is full of the New England sedition. He introduced the subject, and continued to press it–painful as it obviously was to him. I denied the probability, even the possibility that the yeomanry of the North could be induced to place themselves under the power and protection of England, and diverted the conversation to another topic; but he took the first opportunity to return to it, and convinced me that his heart and mind were painfully full of the subject.”
What added to the President’s misgivings was the secrecy in which the members of the Hartford Convention shrouded their deliberations. An atmosphere of conspiracy seemed to envelop all their proceedings. That the “deliverance of New England” was at hand was loudly proclaimed by the Federalist press. A reputable Boston news-sheet advised the President to procure a faster horse than he had mounted at Bladensburg, if he would escape the swift vengeance of New England.
The report of the Hartford Convention seemed hardly commensurate with the fears of the President or with the windy boasts of the Federalist press. It arraigned the Administration in scathing language, to be sure, but it did not advise secession. “The multiplied abuses of bad administrations” did not yet justify a severance of the Union, especially in a time of war. The manifest defects of the Constitution were not incurable; yet the infractions of the Constitution by the National Government had been so deliberate, dangerous, and palpable as to put the liberties of the people in jeopardy and to constrain the several States to interpose their authority to protect their citizens. The legislatures of the several States were advised to adopt measures to protect their citizens against such unconstitutional acts of Congress as conscription and to concert some arrangement with the Government at Washington, whereby they jointly or separately might undertake their own defense, and retain a reasonable share of the proceeds of Federal taxation for that purpose. To remedy the defects of the Constitution seven amendments were proposed, all of which had their origin in sectional hostility to the ascendancy of Virginia and to the growing power of the New West. The last of these proposals was a shot at Madison and Virginia: “nor shall the President be elected from the same State two terms in succession.” And finally, should these applications of the States for permission to arm in their own defense be ignored, then and in the event that peace should not be concluded, another convention should be summoned “with such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require.”
Massachusetts, under Federalist control, acted promptly upon these suggestions. Three commissioners were dispatched to Washington to effect the desired arrangements for the defense of the State. The progress of these “three ambassadors,” as they styled themselves, was followed with curiosity if not with apprehension. In Federalist circles there was a general belief that an explosion was at hand. A disaster at New Orleans, which was now threatened by a British fleet and army, would force Madison to resign or to conclude peace. But on the road to Washington, the ambassadors learned to their surprise that General Andrew Jackson had decisively repulsed the British before New Orleans, on the 8th of January, and on reaching the Capital they were met by the news that a treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent. Their cause was not only discredited but made ridiculous. They and their mission were forgotten as the tension of war times relaxed. The Virginia Dynasty was not to end with James Madison.
CHAPTER XII. THE PEACEMAKERS
On a May afternoon in the year 1813, a little three-hundred-ton ship, the Neptune, put out from New Castle down Delaware Bay. Before she could clear the Capes she fell in with a British frigate, one of the blockading squadron which was already drawing its fatal cordon around the seaboard States. The captain of the Neptune boarded the frigate and presented his passport, from which it appeared that he carried two distinguished passengers, Albert Gallatin and James A. Bayard, Envoys Extraordinary to Russia. The passport duly viseed, the Neptune resumed her course out into the open sea, by grace of the British navy.
One of these envoys watched the coast disappear in the haze of evening with mingled feelings of regret and relief. For twelve weary years Gallatin had labored disinterestedly for the land of his adoption and now he was recrossing the ocean to the home of his ancestors with the taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears. Would the Federalists never forget that he was a “foreigner”? He reflected with a sad, ironic smile that as a “foreigner with a French accent” he would have distinct advantages in the world of European diplomacy upon which he was entering. He counted many distinguished personages among his friends, from Madame de Stael to Alexander Baring of the famous London banking house. Unlike many native Americans he did not need to learn the ways of European courts, because he was to the manner born: he had no provincial habits which he must slough off or conceal. Also he knew himself and the happy qualities with which Nature had endowed him–patience, philosophic composure, unfailing good humor. All these qualities were to be laid under heavy requisition in the work ahead of him.
James Bayard, Gallatin’s fellow passenger, had never been taunted as a foreigner, because several generations had intervened since the first of his family had come to New Amsterdam with Peter Stuyvesant. Nothing but his name could ever suggest that he was not of that stock commonly referred to as native American. Bayard had graduated at Princeton, studied law in Philadelphia, and had just opened a law office in Wilmington when he was elected to represent Delaware in Congress. As the sole representative of his State in the House of Representatives and as a Federalist, he had exerted a powerful influence in the disputed election of 1800, and he was credited with having finally made possible the election of Jefferson over Burr. Subsequently he was sent to the Senate, where he was serving when he was asked by President Madison to accompany Gallatin on this mission to the court of the Czar. Granting that a Federalist must be selected, Gallatin could not have found a colleague more to his liking, for Bayard was a good companion and perhaps the least partisan of the Federalist leaders.
It was midsummer when the Neptune dropped anchor in the harbor of Kronstadt. There Gallatin and Bayard were joined by John Quincy Adams, Minister to Russia, who had been appointed the third member of the commission. Here was a pureblooded American by all the accepted canons. John Quincy Adams was the son of his father and gloried secretly in his lineage: a Puritan of the Puritans in his outlook upon human life and destiny. Something of the rigid quality of rock-bound New England entered into his composition. He was a foe to all compromise–even with himself; to him Duty was the stern daughter of the voice of God, who admonished him daily and hourly of his obligations. No character in American public life has unbosomed himself so completely as this son of Massachusetts in the pages of his diary. There are no half tones in the pictures which he has drawn of himself, no winsome graces of mind or heart, only the rigid outlines of a soul buffeted by Destiny. Gallatin–the urbane, cosmopolitan Gallatin–must have derived much quiet amusement from his association with this robust New Englander who took himself so seriously. Two natures could not have been more unlike, yet the superior flexibility of Gallatin’s temperament made their association not only possible but exceedingly profitable. We may not call their intimacy a friendship–Adams had few, if any friendships; but it contained the essential foundation for friendship–complete mutual confidence.
Adams brought disheartening news to the travel-weary passengers on the Neptune: England had declined the offer of mediation. Yes; he had the information from the lips of Count Roumanzoff, the Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Apparently, said Adams with pursed lips, England regarded the differences with America as a sort of family quarrel in which it would not allow an outside neutral nation to interfere. Roumanzoff, however, had renewed the offer of mediation. What the motives of the Count were, he would not presume to say: Russian diplomacy was unfathomable.
The American commissioners were in a most embarrassing position. Courtesy required that they should make no move until they knew what response the second offer of mediation would evoke. The Czar was their only friend in all Europe, so far as they knew, and they were none too sure of him. They were condemned to anxious inactivity, while in middle Europe the fortunes of the Czar rose and fell. In August the combined armies of Russia, Austria, and Prussia were beaten by the fresh levies of Napoleon; in September, the fighting favored the allies; in October, Napoleon was brought to bay on the plains of Leipzig. Yet the imminent fall of the Napoleonic Empire only deepened the anxiety of the forlorn American envoys, for it was likely to multiply the difficulties of securing reasonable terms from his conqueror.
At the same time with news of the Battle of Leipzig came letters from home which informed Gallatin that his nomination as envoy had been rejected by the Senate. This was the last straw. To remain inactive as an envoy was bad enough; to stay on unaccredited seemed impossible. He determined to take advantage of a hint dropped by his friend Baring that the British Ministry, while declining mediation, was not unwilling to treat directly with the American commissioners. He would go to London in an unofficial capacity and smooth the way to negotiations. But Adams and Bayard demurred and persuaded him to defer his departure. A month later came assurances that Lord Castlereagh had offered to negotiate with the Americans either at London or at Gothenburg.
Late in January, 1814, Gallatin and Bayard set off for Amsterdam: the one to bide his chance to visit London, the other to await further instructions. There they learned that in response to Castlereagh’s overtures, the President had appointed a new commission, on which Gallatin’s name did not appear. Notwithstanding this disappointment, Gallatin secured the desired permission to visit London through the friendly offices of Alexander Baring. Hardly had the Americans established themselves in London when word came that the two new commissioners, Henry Clay and Jonathan Russell, had landed at Gothenburg bearing a commission for Gallatin. It seems that Gallatin was believed to be on his way home and had therefore been left off the commission; on learning of his whereabouts, the President had immediately added his name. So it happened that Gallatin stood last on the list when every consideration dictated his choice as head of the commission. The incident illustrates the difficulties that beset communication one hundred years ago. Diplomacy was a game of chance in which wind and waves often turned the score. Here were five American envoys duly accredited, one keeping his stern vigil in Russia, two on the coast of Sweden, and two in hostile London. Where would they meet? With whom were they to negotiate?
After vexatious delays Ghent was fixed upon as the place where peace negotiations should begin, and there the Americans rendezvoused during the first week in July. Further delay followed, for in spite of the assurances of Lord Castlereagh the British representatives did not make their appearance for a month. Meantime the American commissioners made themselves at home among the hospitable Flemish townspeople, with whom they became prime favorites. In the concert halls they were always greeted with enthusiasm. The musicians soon discovered that British tunes were not in favor and endeavored to learn some American airs. Had the Americans no national airs of their own, they asked. “Oh, yes!” they were assured. “There was Hail Columbia.” Would not one of the gentlemen be good enough to play or sing it? An embarrassing request, for musical talent was not conspicuous in the delegation; but Peter, Gallatin’s black servant, rose to the occasion. He whistled the air; and then one of the attaches scraped out the melody on a fiddle, so that the quick-witted orchestra speedily composed l’air national des Americains a grand orchestre, and thereafter always played it as a counterbalance to God save the King.
The diversions of Ghent, however, were not numerous, and time hung heavy on the hands of the Americans while they waited for the British commissioners. “We dine together at four,” Adams records, “and sit usually at table until six. We then disperse to our several amusements and avocations.” Clay preferred cards or billiards and the mild excitement of rather high stakes. Gallatin and his young son James preferred the theater; and all but Adams became intimately acquainted with the members of a French troupe of players whom Adams describes as the worst he ever saw. As for Adams himself, his diversion was a solitary walk of two or three hours, and then to bed.
On the 6th of August the British commissioners arrived in Ghent–Admiral Lord Gambier, Henry Goulburn, Esq., and Dr. William Adams. They were not an impressive trio. Gambier was an elderly man whom a writer in the Morning Chronicle described as a man “who slumbered for some time as a Junior Lord of Admiralty; who sung psalms, said prayers, and assisted in the burning of Copenhagen, for which he was made a lord.” Goulburn was a young man who had served as an undersecretary of state. Adams was a doctor of laws who was expected perhaps to assist negotiations by his legal lore. Gallatin described them not unfairly as “men who have not made any mark, puppets of Lords Castlereagh and Liverpool.” Perhaps, in justification of this choice of representatives, it should be said that the best diplomatic talent had been drafted into service at Vienna and that the British Ministry expected in this smaller conference to keep the threads of diplomacy in its own hands.
The first meeting of the negotiators was amicable enough. The Americans found their opponents courteous and well-bred; and both sides evinced a desire to avoid in word and manner, as Bayard put it, “everything of an inflammable nature.” Throughout this memorable meeting at Ghent, indeed, even when difficult situations arose and nerves became taut, personal relations continued friendly. “We still keep personally upon eating and drinking terms with them,” Adams wrote at a tense moment. Speaking for his superiors and his colleagues, Admiral Gambier assured the Americans of their earnest desire to end hostilities on terms honorable to both parties. Adams replied that he and his associates reciprocated this sentiment. And then, without further formalities, Goulburn stated in blunt and business-like fashion the matters on which they had been instructed: impressment, fisheries, boundaries, the pacification of the Indians, and the demarkation of an Indian territory. The last was to be regarded as a sine qua non for the conclusion of any treaty. Would the Americans be good enough to state the purport of their instructions?
The American commissioners seem to have been startled out of their composure by this sine qua non. They had no instructions on this latter point nor on the fisheries; they could only ask for a more specific statement. What had His Majesty’s Government in mind when it referred to an Indian territory? With evident reluctance the British commissioners admitted that the proposed Indian territory was to serve as a buffer state between the United States and Canada. Pressed for more details, they intimated that this area thus neutralized might include the entire Northwest.
A second conference only served to show the want of any common basis for negotiation. The Americans had come to Ghent to settle two outstanding problems–blockades and indemnities for attacks on neutral commerce–and to insist on the abandonment of impressments as a sine qua non. Both commissions then agreed to appeal to their respective Governments for further instructions. Within a week, Lord Castlereagh sent precise instructions which confirmed the worst fears of the Americans. The Indian boundary line was to follow the line of the Treaty of Greenville and beyond it neither nation was to acquire land. The United States was asked, in short, to set apart for the Indians in perpetuity an area which comprised the present States of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, four-fifths of Indiana, and a third of Ohio. But, remonstrated Gallatin, this area included States and Territories settled by more than a hundred thousand American citizens. What was to be done with them? “They must look after themselves,” was the blunt answer.
In comparison with this astounding proposal, Lord Castlereagh’s further suggestion of a “rectification” of the frontier by the cession of Fort Niagara and Sackett’s Harbor and by the exclusion of the Americans from the Lakes, seemed of little importance. The purpose of His Majesty’s Government, the commissioners hastened to add, was not aggrandizement but the protection of the North American provinces. In view of the avowed aim of the United States to conquer Canada, the control of the Lakes must rest with Great Britain. Indeed, taking the weakness of Canada into account, His Majesty’s Government might have reasonably demanded the cession of the lands adjacent to the Lakes; and should these moderate terms not be accepted, His Majesty’s Government would feel itself at liberty to enlarge its demands, if the war continued to favor British arms. The American commissioners asked if these proposals relating to the control of the Lakes were also a sine qua non. “We have given you one sine qua non already,” was the reply, “and we should suppose one sine qua non at a time was enough.”
The Americans returned to their hotel of one mind: they could view the proposals just made no other light than as a deliberate attempt to dismember the United States. They could differ only as to the form in which they should couch their positive rejection. As titular head of the commission, Adams set promptly to work upon a draft of an answer which he soon set before his colleagues. At once all appearance of unanimity vanished. To the enemy they could present a united front; in the privacy of their apartment, they were five headstrong men. They promptly fell upon Adams’s draft tooth and nail. Adams described the scene with pardonable resentment
“Mr. Gallatin is for striking out any expression that may be offensive to the feelings of the adverse Party. Mr. Clay is displeased with figurative language which he thinks improper for a state paper. Mr. Russell, agreeing in the objections of the two other gentlemen, will be further for amending the construction of every sentence; and Mr. Bayard, even when agreeing to say precisely the same thing, chooses to say it only in his own language.”
Sharp encounters took place between Adams and Clay. “You dare not,” shouted Clay in a passion on one occasion, “you CANNOT, you SHALL not insinuate that there has been a cabal of three members against you!” “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Gallatin would expostulate with a twinkle in his eye, “We must remain united or we will fail.” It was his good temper and tact that saved this and many similar situations. When Bayard had essayed a draft of his own and had failed to win support, it was Gallatin who took up Adams’s draft and put it into acceptable form. On the third day, after hours of “sifting, erasing, patching, and amending, until we were all wearied, though none of us satisfied,” Gallatin’s revision was accepted. From this moment, Gallatin’s virtual leadership was unquestioned.
The American note of the 24th of August was a vigorous but even-tempered protest against the British demands as contrary to precedent and dishonorable to the United States. The American States would never consent “to abandon territory and a portion of their citizens, to admit a foreign interference in their domestic concerns, and to cease to exercise their natural rights on their own shores and in their own waters.” “A treaty concluded on such terms would be but an armistice.” But after the note had been prepared and dispatched, profound discouragement reigned in the American hotel. Even Gallatin, usually hopeful and philosophically serene, grew despondent. “Our negotiations may be considered at an end,” he wrote to Monroe; “Great Britain wants war in order to cripple us. She wants aggrandizement at our expense . . . . I do not expect to be longer than three weeks in Europe.” The commissioners notified their landlord that they would give up their quarters on the 1st of October; yet they lingered on week after week, waiting for the word which would close negotiations and send them home.
Meantime the British Ministry was quite as little pleased at the prospect. It would not do to let the impression go abroad that Great Britain was prepared to continue the war for territorial gains. If a rupture of the negotiations must come, Lord Castlereagh preferred to let the Americans shoulder the responsibility. He therefore instructed Gambier not to insist on the independent Indian territory and the control of the Lakes. These points were no longer to be “ultimata” but only matters for discussion. The British commissioners were to insist, however, on articles providing for the pacification of the Indians.
Should the Americans yield this sine qua non, now that the first had been withdrawn? Adams thought not, decidedly not; he would rather break off negotiations than admit the right of Great Britain to interfere with the Indians dwelling within the limits of the United States. Gallatin remarked that after all it was a very small point to insist on, when a slight concession would win much more important points. “Then, said I [Adams], with a movement of impatience and an angry tone, it is a good point to admit the British as the sovereigns and protectors of our Indians? Gallatin’s face brightened, and he said in a tone of perfect good-humor, ‘That’s a non-sequitur.’ This turned the edge of the argument into jocularity. I laughed, and insisted that it was a sequitur, and the conversation easily changed to another point.” Gallatin had his way with the rest of the commission and drafted the note of the 26th of September, which, while refusing to recognize the Indians as sovereign nations in the treaty, proposed a stipulation that would leave them in possession of their former lands and rights. This solution of a perplexing problem was finally accepted after another exchange of notes and another earnest discussion at the American hotel, where Gallatin again poured oil on the troubled waters. Concession begat concession. New instructions from President Madison now permitted the commissioners to drop the demand for the abolition of impressments and blockades; and, with these difficult matters swept away, the path to peace was much easier to travel.
Such was the outlook for peace when news reached Ghent of the humiliating rout at Bladensburg. The British newspapers were full of jubilant comments; the five crestfallen American envoys took what cold comfort they could out of the very general condemnation of the burning of the Capitol. Then, on the heels of this intelligence, came rumors that the British invasion of New York had failed and that Prevost’s army was in full retreat to Canada. The Americans could hardly grasp the full significance of this British reversal: it was too good to be true. But true it was, and their spirits rebounded.
It was at this juncture that the British commissioners presented a note, on the 21st of October, which for the first time went to the heart of the negotiations. War had been waged; territory had been overrun; conquests had been made–not the anticipated conquests on either side, to be sure, but conquests nevertheless. These were the plain facts. Now the practical question was this: Was the treaty to be drafted on the basis of the existing state of possession or on the basis of the status before the war? The British note stated their case in plain unvarnished fashion; it insisted on the status uti possidetis–the possession of territory won by arms.
In the minds of the Americans, buoyed up by the victory at Plattsburg, there was not the shadow of doubt as to what their answer should be; they declined for an instant to consider any other basis for peace than the restoration of gains on both sides. Their note was prompt, emphatic, even blunt, and it nearly shattered the nerves of the gentlemen in Downing Street. Had these stiffnecked Yankees no sense? Could they not perceive the studied moderation of the terms proposed–an island or two and a small strip of Maine–when half of Maine and the south bank of the St. Lawrence from Plattsburg to Sackett’s Harbor might have been demanded as the price of peace?
The prospect of another year of war simply to secure a frontier which nine out of ten Englishmen could not have identified was most disquieting, especially in view of the prodigious cost of military operations in North America. The Ministry was both hot and cold. At one moment it favored continued war; at another it shrank from the consequences; and in the end it confessed its own want of decision by appealing to the Duke of Wellington and trying to shift the responsibility to his broad shoulders. Would the Duke take command of the forces in Canada? He should be invested with full diplomatic and military powers to bring the war to an honorable conclusion.
The reply of the Iron Duke gave the Ministry another shock. He would go to America, but he did not promise himself much success there, and he was reluctant to leave Europe at this critical time. To speak frankly, he had no high opinion of the diplomatic game which the Ministry was playing at Ghent. “I confess,” said he, “that I think you have no right from the state of the war to demand any concession from America. . . You have not been able to carry it into the enemy’s territory, notwithstanding your military success, and now undoubted military superiority, and have not even cleared your own territory on the point of attack. You cannot on any principle of equality in negotiation claim a cession of territory excepting in exchange for other advantages which you have in your power . . . . Then if this reasoning be true, why stipulate for the uti possidetis? You can get no territory; indeed, the state of your military operations, however creditable, does not entitle you to demand any.”
As Lord Liverpool perused this dispatch, the will to conquer oozed away. “I think we have determined,” he wrote a few days later to Castlereagh, “if all other points can be satisfactorily settled, not to continue the war for the purpose of obtaining or securing any acquisition of territory.” He set forth his reasons for this decision succinctly: the unsatisfactory state of the negotiations at Vienna, the alarming condition of France, the deplorable financial outlook in England. But Lord Liverpool omitted to mention a still more potent factor in his calculations–the growing impatience of the country. The American war had ceased to be popular; it had become the graveyard of military reputations; it promised no glory to either sailor or soldier. Now that the correspondence of the negotiators at Ghent was made public, the reading public might very easily draw the conclusion that the Ministry was prolonging the war by setting up pretensions which it could not sustain. No Ministry could afford to continue a war out of mere stubbornness.
Meantime, wholly in the dark as to the forces which were working in their favor, the American commissioners set to work upon a draft of a treaty which should be their answer to the British offer of peace on the basis of uti possidetis. Almost at once dissensions occurred. Protracted negotiations and enforced idleness had set their nerves on edge, and old personal and sectional differences appeared. The two matters which caused most trouble were the fisheries and the navigation of the Mississippi. Adams could not forget how stubbornly his father had fought for that article in the treaty of 1783 which had conceded to New England fishermen, as a natural right, freedom to fish in British waters. To a certain extent this concession had been offset by yielding to the British the right of navigation of the Mississippi, but the latter right seemed unimportant in the days when the Alleghanies marked the limit of western settlement. In the quarter of a century which had elapsed, however, the West had come into its own. It was now a powerful section with an intensely alert consciousness of its rights and wrongs; and among its rights it counted the exclusive control of the Father of Waters. Feeling himself as much the champion of Western interests as Adams did of New England fisheries, Clay refused indignantly to consent to a renewal of the treaty provisions of 1783. But when the matter came to a vote, he found himself with Russell in a minority. Veryreluctantly he then agreed to Gallatin’s proposal, to insert in a note, rather than in the draft itself, a paragraph to the effect that the commissioners were not instructed to discuss the rights hitherto enjoyed in the fisheries, since no further stipulation was deemed necessary to entitle them to rights which were recognized by the treaty of 1783.
When the British reply to the American project was read, Adams noted with quiet satisfaction that the reservation as to the fisheries was passed over in silence–silence, he thought, gave consent–but Clay flew into a towering passion when he learned that the old right of navigating the Mississippi was reasserted. Adams was prepared to accept the British proposals; Clay refused point blank; and Gallatin sided this time with Clay. Could a compromise be effected between these stubborn representatives of East and West? Gallatin tried once more. Why not accept the British right of navigation–surely an unimportant point after all–and ask for an express affirmation of fishery rights? Clay replied hotly that if they were going to sacrifice the West to Massachusetts, he would not sign the treaty. With infinite patience Gallatin continued to play the role of peacemaker and finally brought both these self-willed men to agree to offer a renewal of both rights.
Instead of accepting this eminently fair adjustment, the British representatives proposed that the two disputed rights be left to future negotiation. The suggestion caused another explosion in the ranks of the Americans. Adams would not admit even by implication that the rights for which his sire fought could be forfeited by war and become the subject of negotiation. But all save Adams were ready to yield. Again Gallatin came to the rescue. He penned a note rejecting the British offer, because it seemed to imply the abandonment of a right; but in turn he offered to omit in the treaty all reference to the fisheries and the Mississippi or to include a general reference to further negotiation of all matters still in dispute, in such a way as not to relinquish any rights. To this solution of the difficulty all agreed, though Adams was still torn by doubts and Clay believed that the treaty was bound to be “damned bad” anyway.
An anxious week of waiting followed. On the 22d of December came the British reply–a grudging acceptance of Gallatin’s first proposal to omit all reference to the fisheries and the Mississippi. Two days later the treaty was signed in the refectory of the Carthusian monastery where the British commissioners were quartered. Let the tired seventeen-year-old boy who had been his father’s scribe through these long weary months describe the events of Christmas Day, 1814. “The British delegates very civilly asked us to dinner,” wrote James Gallatin in his diary. “The roast beef and plum pudding was from England, and everybody drank everybody else’s health. The band played first God Save the King, to the toast of the King, and Yankee Doodle, to the toast of the President. Congratulations on all sides and a general atmosphere of serenity; it was a scene to be remembered. God grant there may be always peace between the two nations. I never saw father so cheerful; he was in high spirits, and his witty conversation was much appreciated.”*
* “A Great Peace Maker: The Dairy of James Gallatin” (1914). p. 36.
Peace! That was the outstanding achievement of the American commissioners at Ghent. Measured by the purposes of the war-hawks of 1812, measured by the more temperate purposes of President Madison, the Treaty of Ghent was a confession of national weakness and humiliating failure. Clay, whose voice had been loudest for war and whose kindling fancy had pictured American armies dictating terms of surrender at Quebec, set his signature to a document which redressed not a single grievance and added not a foot of territory to the United States. Adams, who had denounced Great Britain for the crime of “man-stealing,” accepted a treaty of peace which contained not a syllable about impressment. President Madison, who had reluctantly accepted war as the last means of escape from the blockade of American ports and the ruin of neutral trade, recommended the ratification of a convention which did not so much as mention maritime questions and the rights of neutrals.
Peace–and nothing more? Much more, indeed, than appears in rubrics on parchment. The Treaty of Ghent must be interpreted in the light of more than a hundred years of peace between the two great branches of the English-speaking race. More conscious of their differences than anything else, no doubt, these eight peacemakers at Ghent nevertheless spoke a common tongue and shared a common English trait: they laid firm hold on realities. Like practical men they faced the year 1815 and not 1812. In a pacified Europe rid of the Corsican, questions of maritime practice seemed dead issues. Let the dead past bury its dead! To remove possible causes of future controversy seemed wiser statesmanship than to rake over the embers of quarrels which might never be rekindled. So it was that in prosaic articles they provided for three commissions to arbitrate boundary controversies at critical points in the far-flung frontier between Canada and the United States, and thus laid the foundations of an international accord which has survived a hundred years.
CHAPTER XIII. SPANISH DERELICTS IN THE NEW WORLD
It fell to the last, and perhaps least talented, President of the Virginia Dynasty to consummate the work of Jefferson and Madison by a final settlement with Spain which left the United States in possession of the Floridas. In the diplomatic service James Monroe had exhibited none of those qualities which warranted the expectation that he would succeed where his predecessors had failed. On his missions to England and Spain, indeed, he had been singularly inept, but he had learned much in the rude school of experience, and he now brought to his new duties discretion, sobriety, and poise. He was what the common people held him to be a faithful public servant, deeply and sincerely republican, earnestly desirous to serve the country which he loved.
The circumstances of Monroe’s election pledged him to a truly national policy. He had received the electoral votes of all but three States.* He was now President of an undivided country, not merely a Virginian fortuitously elevated to the chief magistracy and regarded as alien in sympathy to the North and East. Any doubts on this point were dispelled by the popular demonstrations which greeted him on his tour through Federalist strongholds in the Northeast. “I have seen enough,” he wrote in grateful recollection, “to satisfy me that the great mass of our fellow-citizens in the Eastern States are as firmly attached to the union and republican government as I have always believed or could desire them to be.” The news-sheets which followed his progress from day to day coined the phrase, “era of good feeling,” which has passed current ever since as a characterization of his administration.
* Monroe received 183 electoral votes and Rufus King, 34–the votes of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.
It was in this admirable temper and with this broad national outlook that Monroe chose his advisers and heads of departments. He was well aware of the common belief that his predecessors had appointed Virginians to the Secretaryship of State in order to prepare the way for their succession to the Presidency. He was determined, therefore, to avert the suspicion of sectional bias by selecting some one from the Eastern States, rather than from the South or from the West, hitherto so closely allied to the South. His choice fell upon John Quincy Adams, “who by his age, long experience in our foreign affairs, and adoption into the Republican party,” he assured Jefferson, “seems to have superior pretentions.” It was an excellent appointment from every point of view but one. Monroe had overlooked–and the circumstance did him infinite credit–the exigencies of politics and passed over an individual whose vaulting ambition had already made him an aspirant to the Presidency. Henry Clay was grievously disappointed and henceforward sulked in his tent, refusing the Secretaryship of War which the President tendered. Eventually the brilliant young John C. Calhoun took this post. This South Carolinian was in the prime of life, full of fire and dash, ardently patriotic, and nationally-minded to an unusual degree. Of William H. Crawford of Georgia, who retained the Secretaryship of the Treasury, little need be said except that he also was a presidential aspirant who saw things always from the angle of political expediency. Benjamin W. Crowninshield as Secretary of the Navy and William Wirt as Attorney-General completed the circle of the President’s intimate advisers.
The new Secretary of State had not been in office many weeks before he received a morning call from Don Luis de Onis, the Spanish Minister, who was laboring under ill-disguised excitement. It appeared that his house in Washington had been repeatedly “insulted” of late-windows broken, lamps in front of the house smashed, and one night a dead fowl tied to his bell-rope. This last piece of vandalism had been too much for his equanimity. He held it a gross insult to his sovereign and the Spanish monarchy, importing that they were of no more consequence than a dead old hen! Adams, though considerably amused, endeavored to smooth the ruffled pride of the chevalier by suggesting that these were probably only the tricks of some mischievous boys; but De Onis was not easily appeased. Indeed, as Adams was himself soon to learn, the American public did regard the Spanish monarchy as a dead old hen, and took no pains to disguise its contempt. Adams had yet to learn the long train of circumstances which made Spanish relations the most delicate and difficult of all the diplomatic problems in his office.
With his wonted industry, Adams soon made himself master of the facts relating to Spanish diplomacy. For the moment interest centered on East Florida. Carefully unraveling the tangled skein of events, Adams followed the thread which led back to President Madison’s secret message to Congress of January 3,1811, which was indeed one of the landmarks in American policy. Madison had recommended a declaration “that the United States could not see without serious inquietude any part of a neighboring territory [like East Florida] in which they have in different respects so deep and so just a concern pass from the hands of Spain into those of any other foreign power.” To prevent the possible subversion of Spanish authority in East Florida and the occupation of the province by a foreign power–Great Britain was, of course, the power the President had in mind–he had urged Congress to authorize him to take temporary possession “in pursuance of arrangements which may be desired by the Spanish authorities.” Congress had responded with alacrity and empowered the President to occupy East Florida in case the local authorities should consent or a foreign power should attempt to occupy it.
With equal dispatch the President had sent two agents, General George Matthews and Colonel John McKee, on one of the strangest missions in the border history of the United States.
East Florida–Adams found, pursuing his inquiries into the archives of the department–included the two important ports of entry, Pensacola on the Gulf and Fernandina on Amelia Island, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River. The island had long been a notorious resort for smugglers. Hither had come British and American vessels with cargoes of merchandise and slaves, which found their way in mysterious fashion to consignees within the States. A Spanish garrison of ten men was the sole custodian of law and order on the island. Up and down the river was scattered a lawless population of freebooters, who were equally ready to raid a border plantation or to raise the Jolly Roger on some piratical cruise. To this No Man’s Land–fertile recruiting ground for all manner of filibustering expeditions–General Matthews and Colonel McKee had betaken themselves in the spring of 1811, bearing some explicit instructions from President Madison but also some very pronounced convictions as to what they were expected to accomplish. Matthews, at least, understood that the President wished a revolution after the West Florida model. He assured the Administration-Adams read the precious missive in the files of his office-that he could do the trick. Only let the Government consign two hundred stand of arms and fifty horsemen’s swords to the commander at St. Mary’s, and he would guarantee to put the revolution through without committing the United States in any way.
The melodrama had been staged for the following spring (1812). Some two hundred “patriots” recruited from the border people gathered near St. Mary’s with souls yearning for freedom; and while American gunboats took a menacing position, this force of insurgents had landed on Amelia Island and summoned the Spanish commandant to surrender. Not willing to spoil the scene by vulgar resistance, the commandant capitulated and marched out his garrison, ten strong, with all the honors of war. The Spanish flag had been hauled down to give place to the flag of the insurgents, bearing the inspiring motto Salus populi–suprema lex. Then General Matthews with a squad of regular United States troops had crossed the river and taken possession. Only the benediction of the Government at Washington was lacking to make the success of his mission complete; but to the general’s consternation no approving message came, only a peremptory dispatch disavowing his acts and revoking his commission.
As Adams reviewed these events, he could see no other alternative for the Government to have pursued at this moment when war with Great Britain was impending. It would have been the height of folly to break openly with Spain. The Administration had indeed instructed its new agent, Governor Mitchell of Georgia, to restore the island to the Spanish commandant and to withdraw his troops, if he could do so without sacrificing the insurgents to the vengeance of the Spaniards. But the forces set in motion by Matthews were not so easily controlled from Washington. Once having resolved to liberate East Florida, the patriots were not disposed to retire at the nod of the Secretary of State. The Spanish commandant was equally obdurate. He would make no promise to spare the insurgents. The Legislature of Georgia, too, had a mind of its own. It resolved that the occupation of East Florida was essential to the safety of the State, whether Congress approved or no; and the Governor, swept along in the current of popular feeling, summoned troops from Savannah to hold the province. Just at this moment had come the news of war with Great Britain; and Governor, State militia, and patriots had combined in an effort to prevent East Florida from becoming enemy’s territory.
Military considerations had also swept the Administration along the same hazardous course. The occupation of the Floridas seemed imperative. The President sought authorization from Congress to occupy and govern both the Floridas until the vexed question of title could be settled by negotiation. Only a part of this programme had carried, for, while Congress was prepared to approve the military occupation of West Florida to the Perdido River, beyond that it would not go; and so with great reluctance the President had ordered the troops to withdraw from Amelia Island. In the spring of the same year (1813) General Wilkinson had occupied West Florida–the only permanent conquest of the war and that, oddly enough, the conquest of a territory owned and held by a power with which the United States was not at war.
Abandoned by the American troops, Amelia Island had become a rendezvous for outlaws from every part of the Americas. Just about the time that Adams was crossing the ocean to take up his duties at the State Department, one of these buccaneers by the name of Gregor MacGregor descended upon the island as “Brigadier General of the Armies of the United Provinces of New Granada and Venezuela, and General-in-chief of that destined to emancipate the provinces of both Floridas, under the commission of the Supreme Government of Mexico and South America.” This pirate was soon succeeded by General Aury, who had enjoyed a wild career among the buccaneers of Galveston Bay, where he had posed as military governor under the Republic of Mexico. East Florida in the hands of such desperadoes was a menace to the American border. Approaching the problem of East Florida without any of the prepossessions of those who had been dealing with Spanish envoys for a score of years, the new Secretary of State was prepared to move directly to his goal without any too great consideration for the feelings of others. His examination of the facts led him to a clean-cut decision: this nest of pirates must be broken up at once. His energy carried President and Cabinet along with him. It was decided to send troops and ships to the St. Mary’s and if necessary to invest Fernandina. This demonstration of force sufficed; General Aury departed to conquer new worlds, and Amelia Island was occupied for the second time without bloodshed.
But now, having grasped the nettle firmly, what was the Administration to do with it? De Onis promptly registered his protest; the opposition in Congress seized upon the incident to worry the President; many of the President’s friends thought that he had been precipitate. Monroe, indeed, would have been glad to withdraw the troops now that they had effected their object, but Adams was for holding the island in order to force Spain to terms. With a frankness which lacerated the feelings of De Onis, Adams insisted that the United States had acted strictly on the defensive. The occupation of Amelia Island was not an act of aggression but a necessary measure for the protection of commerce–American commerce, the commerce of other nations, the commerce of Spain itself. Now why not put an end to all friction by ceding the Floridas to the United States? What would Spain take for all her possessions east of the Mississippi, Adams asked. De Onis declined to say. Well, then, Adams pursued, suppose the United States should withdraw from Amelia Island, would Spain guarantee that it should not be occupied again by free- booters? No: De Onis could give no such guarantee, but he would write to the Governor of Havana to ascertain if he would send an adequate garrison to Fernandina. Adams reported this significant conversation to the President, who was visibly shaken by the conflict of opinions within his political household and not a little alarmed at the possibility of war with Spain. The Secretary of State was coolly taking the measure of his chief. “There is a slowness, want of decision, and a spirit of procrastination in the President,” he confided to his diary. He did not add, but the thought was in his mind, that he could sway this President, mold him to his heart’s desire. In this first trial of strength the hardier personality won: Monroe sent a message to Congress, on January 13, 1818, announcing his intention to hold East Florida for the present, and the arguments which he used to justify this bold course were precisely those of his Secretary of State.
When Adams suggested that Spain might put an end to all her worries by ceding the Floridas, he was only renewing an offer that Monroe had made while he was still Secretary of State. De Onis had then declared that Spain would never cede territory east of the Mississippi unless the United States would relinquish its claims west of that river. Now, to the new Secretary, De Onis intimated that he was ready to be less exacting. He would be willing to run the line farther west and allow the United States a large part of what is now the State of Louisiana. Adams made no reply to this tentative proposal but bided his time; and time played into his hands in unexpected ways.
To the Secretary’s office, one day in June, 1818, came a letter from De Onis which was a veritable firebrand. De Onis, who was not unnaturally disposed to believe the worst of Americans on the border, had heard that General Andrew Jackson in pursuit of the Seminole Indians had crossed into Florida and captured Pensacola and St. Mark’s. He demanded to be informed “in a positive, distinct and explicit manner just what had occurred”; and then, outraged by confirmatory reports and without waiting for Adams’s reply, he wrote another angry letter, insisting upon the restitution of the captured forts and the punishment of the American general. Worse tidings followed. Bagot, the British Minister, had heard that Jackson had seized and executed two British subjects on Spanish soil. Would the Secretary of State inform him whether General Jackson had been authorized to take Pensacola, and would the Secretary furnish him with copies of the reports of the courts-martial which had condemned these two subjects of His Majesty? Adams could only reply that he lacked official information.
By the second week in July, dispatches from General Jackson confirmed the worst insinuations and accusations of De Onis and Bagot. President Monroe was painfully embarrassed. Prompt disavowal of the general’s conduct seemed the only way to avert war; but to disavow the acts of this popular idol, the victor of New Orleans, was no light matter. He sought the advice of his Cabinet and was hardly less embarrassed to find all but one convinced that “Old Hickory” had acted contrary to instructions and had committed acts of hostility against Spain. A week of anxious Cabinet sessions followed, in which only one voice was raised in defense of the invasion of Florida. All but Adams feared war, a war which the opposition would surely brand as incited by the President without the consent of Congress. No administration could carry on a war begun in violation of the Constitution, said Calhoun. But, argued Adams, the President may authorize defensive acts of hostility. Jackson had been authorized to cross the frontier, if necessary, in pursuit of the Indians, and all the ensuing deplorable incidents had followed as a necessary consequence of Indian warfare.
The conclusions of the Cabinet were summed up by Adams in a reply to De Onis, on the 23d of July, which must have greatly astonished that diligent defender of Spanish honor. Opening the letter to read, as he confidently expected, a disavowal and an offer of reparation, he found the responsibility for the recent unpleasant incidents fastened upon his own country. He was reminded that by the treaty of 1795 both Governments had contracted to restrain the Indians within their respective borders, so that neither should suffer from hostile raids, and that the Governor of Pensacola, when called upon to break up a stronghold of Indians and fugitive slaves, had acknowledged his obligation but had pleaded his inability to carry out the covenant. Then, and then only, had General Jackson been authorized to cross the border and to put an end to outrages which the Spanish authorities lacked the power to prevent. General Jackson had taken possession of the Spanish forts on his own responsibility when he became convinced of the duplicity of the commandant, who, indeed, had made himself “a partner and accomplice of the hostile Indians and of their foreign instigators.” Such conduct on the part of His Majesty’s officer justified the President in calling for his punishment. But, in the meantime, the President was prepared to restore Pensacola, and also St. Mark’s, whenever His Majesty should send a force sufficiently strong to hold the Indians under control.
Nor did the Secretary of State moderate his tone or abate his demands when Pizarro, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, threatened to suspend negotiations with the United States until it should give satisfaction for this “shameful invasion of His Majesty’s territory” and for these “acts of barbarity glossed over with the forms of justice.” In a dispatch to the American Minister at Madrid, Adams vigorously defended Jackson’s conduct from beginning to end. The time had come, said he, when “Spain must immediately make her election either to place a force in Florida adequate at once to the protection of her territory and to the fulfilment of her engagements or cede to the United States a province of which she retains nothing but the nominal possession, but which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States and serving no other earthly purpose, than as a post of annoyance to them.”
This affront to Spanish pride might have ended abruptly a chapter in Spanish-American diplomacy but for the friendly offices of Hyde de Neuville, the French Minister at Washington, whose Government could not view without alarm the possibility of a rupture between the two countries. It was Neuville who labored through the summer months of this year, first with Adams, then with De Onis, tempering the demands of the one and placating the pride of the other, but never allowing intercourse to drop. Adams was right, and both Neuville and De Onis knew it; the only way to settle outstanding differences was to cede these Spanish derelicts in the New World to the United States.
To bring and keep together these two antithetical personalities, representatives of two opposing political systems, was no small achievement. What De Onis thought of his stubborn opponent may be surmised; what the American thought of the Spaniard need not be left to conjecture. In the pages of his diary Adams painted the portrait of his adversary as he saw him–“cold, calculating,