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If Only Mr. Madison Had Waited—
Gambling on a diplomatic coup with a wily Napoleon, he maneuvered America into the needless War of 1812
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The War of 1812 has never quite lived up to, and never quite lived down, its title of The Second War of Independence. The suspicion that it was unnecessary, the fact that it was inconclusive, the fog of disunion, apathy, and muddle that hangs about it—these provide a dismal context for its heroic episodes and figures. Even so great a reputation as that of James Madison has been somewhat stained by it.
The British Tories said at the time that the United States had stabbed Great Britain in the back by declaring war against her just when she needed all her strength for a final struggle with Napoleon. Coming from such a source, this is rather like an accusation of felony leveled by the criminal classes against the police: not necessarily untrue, but scarcely persuasive. The British felt—and their supporters in the United States agreed with them—that President Madison’s relations with Napoleon had been openly subservient; they were not sure that they had not also been collusive. They discovered a sinister coincidence in the fact that Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, and that Napoleon attacked Russia less than a week later.
Coincidence has little evidential value unless it is supported by the most substantial Tacts—in other words, unless it is shown not to be coincidence at all. As James Madison pointed out in 1827, in a letter to Henry When ton, such facts did not exist. He had not acted in concert with Napoleon. He had not guaranteed that he would consult the Emperor before making peace with the British. It was, indeed, by no means sure that he would not have to ask for a war against him , after or even during the war with Great Britain.
Madison’s predicament was that of a neutral, peaceloving statesman who was dragged most unwillingly into a -ivorld war; tor Madison might, with almost equal justice, have fought the French as well as the British. The great Jeffersonian concept of the freedom of the seas was bitterly contested by the British and airily disregarded by the French; the problem was how to maintain it without going to war. The problem was not solved and never would be.
The War of 1812 was merely an episode in the Napoleonic Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars themselves were the culmination of a century-old conflict between the British and the French empires for control of the trade routes to America and India. When Napoleon advanced towards Moscow in 1812, he was advancing towards the converging point of the roads that connected the Baltic with the traffic of Asia; it was, in fact, his last and most grandiose eil’ort to find a route to India. When the Americans simultaneously invaded Canada, they threatened the other terminus of the British trading empire. Their objectives in invading Canada, and their manner of doing so, were far from Napoleonic, but somehow or other they had involved themselves in the grand strategy of the Napoleonic empire.
As it happened, these simultaneous assaults broke clown simultaneously. When Hull surrendered at Detroit on August 16, 1812, Xapoleon was about to display, before the walls of Smolensk, an infatuation which his faithful De Caulainrourt interpreted as the first portent of disaster. On October 13 Van Rensselaer recoiled from Queenston; on October 19. Xapoleon and the Imperial Guard vanished from Moscow. On November 23, Dearborn led his troops bark to Plattsburg and the invasion of Canada was at an end: two weeks later, Xapoleon abandoned his dying army and headed for the Rhine, a chattering fugitive, wrapped in furs and bandages. From then oil the War of 1812 could lead only to defeat or stalemate.
When. Madison submitted his War Message in June, 1812, he did so. not because he had suddenly or deliberately reversed his policy of peaceful coercion, but because he had lost control of it. He had imported into his diplomacy a degree of cleverness which diplomacy cannot sustain; his peaceful coercion had thereby acquired a momentum of its own, and had ended by coercing, not the British or the French, but the President himself.
James Madison was not popular with the extremists of his own Republican party, who thought that his sympathies were half Federalist. The Federalists thought that they were wholly French. Moreover, he was the inheritor of Jefferson’s policies, which he had helped to make as secretary of state, and they were in such bad shape when he became President in 1809 that he was in the position of a second-in-command who is required to take control of a losing battle.
Only the most resolute and commanding personality, capable of infusing warmth into tepid friendships and of striking fear into sullen and treacherous enmities, could have restored this depressing situation. Madison was a great man, but not, politically, a great personality. The crisis called for charms and thunderbolts; he offered coldness, reserve, and dispassion.
We cannot judge the Napoleonic Wars in modern terms—that is to say, as mere criminal folly. War in those days was considered the final sanction of a strong foreign policy, and was held to be both glorious and profitable. (The glory went mostly to the Frenchthai terrible, spurious Napoleonic glory, which was enshrined with the Emperor’s body at the Invalides and led his nephew to the disaster of Sedan. The profits went to the British.) We can only say that they were immensely imprudent.