- Historic Sites
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 Leopard-Chesapeake outrage represents, in action, a kind of thinking which was finally constellated in the British Orders of November 11. On June 22, 1807, the British frigate, H.M.S. Leopard , met the American frigate, U.S.S. Chesapeake , just outside the three-mile limit off Norfolk Roads, and requested permission to search her for deserters from the British Navy. When the Chesapeake naturally refused this request, the Leopard nearly blew her out of the water with three murderous broadsides at point-blank range. The Chesapeake , unprepared for action, was able to fire only one shot before hauling down her flag.
Regardless of apologies and reparations—which were reluctantly accorded after four years’ negotiation—what mattered about this incident was that it had occurred at all. The request to search the public ship of a friendly power was unprecedented; the attack when the request was refused was not only contemptible, it was also in the highest degree contemptuous. As for the four deserters taken off the Chesapeake that day, only one was genuine. The other three were Americans who had been impressed into the British Navy.
The impressment of American sailors from American merchant ships on the high seas was odious as a practice and—even with the feeble excuse that these sailors were “mistaken” for disobedient British subjects—indefensible as a right. Yet of all their maritime rights this was the one to which the British most stubbornly clung. If they could not impress on the high seas, how could they keep their Navy up to strength?
The obvious answer was to make the Navy less of a living hell, but this was not considered. Between deserters and volunteers, there was a mounting deficit which impressment alone could make good—but not very good. On Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar (and Nelson was a popular commander who actually attracted volunteers) there were Americans, French, Spaniards, Kanakas, Scandinavians, Germans, Swiss, Portuguese, almost all impressed; and even then the Victory was undermanned.
President Jefferson could have gone to war after the Leopard outrage with a united country behind him, and on the issue of impressment. He preferred to take a very different kind of action, which has often been ridiculed, but which remains one of the great feats of idealistic statesmanship. A revival of the Non-Importation Act, and the Embargo Act, which confined American shipping to port—these were supreme measures of peaceful coercion. To call them impracticable is to forget the effect they had upon Britain’s economy: half strangling its industry for lack of export outlets, glutting its warehouses with unsalable colonial produce, and all this in a little over a year.
But they were certainly founded on the misapprehension that ordinary men will, in a crisis, behave like philosophers. Their terrible austerity was too much for merchants and shipowners, farmers and planters; and when they were repealed they left the country embittered, divided, and in grave financial disorder. This was the situation which James Madison inherited when he became President on March 4, 1809.
The domestic politics preceding the War of 1812 do not come within the scope of this narrative. The anti-British pressures to which Madison was subjected were of course numerous and complex. There was the appetite of farmers and planters for Canada and Florida; there was the more respectable demand for the extinction of British-Indian intrigues in the Northwest and for adequate protection along the Gulf of Mexico; there was the lingering Revolutionary predilection for France; there was the high-spirited resentment of British impressments and blockades; there was the domination of the Twelfth Congress by the young Republican nationalist “War Hawks.”
Madison was amenable to some, though not to all, of these pressures. James Monroe, who had stopped sulking and become his secretary of state in 1811, replacing the incompetent Robert Smith, was certainly even more amenable. There is no evidence, however, that Madison (or, for that matter, Monroe, became a willing tool of the war party. What Madison had done was to maneuver himself into such a shaky position—and all in the cause of peaceful coercion—that any war-like pressure would send him over the edge.
The Embargo and Non-Importation were followed by a Non-Intercourse Act, which was to be enforced against both France and England, but which proved to be unworkable. It gave too little scope to legal trade and was an open invitation to smuggling. It was succeeded by a piece of legislation known as Macon’s Bill No. 2, which was enacted on May i, 1810, and restored normal trade relations with both belligerents, but held out to each a combined promise and threat. If Britain should withdraw its Orders, the Macon Act promised, Non-Intercourse would be revived against France; if France should revoke its Decrees, it would be revived against Britain. This is the only piece of legislation that really hurt Napoleon.