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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
Hitherto he had been cheerfully trampling on American neutral rights, by sequestrating or confiscating such American ships as came within his grasp, on the curious pleas that they were not American (if taken during the Embargo) or that he was legally retaliating against the Non-Intercourse. The damage he had already done to American shipping was extremely high and, from his point of view, immensely profitable. When he read the provisions of the Macon Act he realized, of course, that the United States had resigned its virtual membership in his Continental System, and at the very time when the Czar of Russia was preparing to do the same thing.
The crisis was terrible, but Napoleon was undaunted. He was ready at once with an ingenious device. He instructed the Duc de Cadore, his foreign minister, to communicate to the American minister, John Armstrong, the pleasing intelligence that “the Decrees of Berlin and Milan are revoked, and after November ist they will cease to have effect—it being understood ( bien entendu ) that in consequence of this declaration the English are to revoke their Orders in Council … or that the United States, conformably to the Act you have just communicated, cause their rights to be respected by the English.”
The words which Napoleon had dictated to Cadore were palpably both meaningless and insolent: meaningless because public decrees cannot be revoked by a communication from a foreign minister to a diplomat; insolent because, if the Macon Act meant anything, it meant that the United States would accept no conditions precedent to a revocation of the Orders. Yet Madison, who understood—if ever any man understood—the meaning of language, gladly acceded to this implausible revocation, issued a proclamation (November 2, 1810) in accordance with it, and announced that the Non-Intercourse would be renewed against the British within three months. This was actually achieved by Congress on March 2, 1811.
Why could he not have waited, at least for some evidence that the Decrees were really revoked? The only possible answer is that, while he saw through Napoleon’s ruse, he wished to pretend to be taken in by it. He knew by this time that the Orders were unpopular in England, and that a little extra pressure—a renewal of the Non-Intercourse, followed perhaps by a threat of war—might compel the British to withdraw them and thus keep the peace with America. He had not counted on the shamelessness of Napoleon or the stubbornness of the British.
For Napoleon continued to violate American neutral rights. He continued to announce, in the most public manner, that the Decrees of Berlin and Milan were the fundamental laws of his empire, and he was threatening to go to war with the Czar of Russia because the Czar, in defiance of the Decrees which should at least have been revoked as regards American trade, had opened his Baltic ports to American ships. Under these circumstances, the British maintained that the Macon Act should not have been used against them—an argument which was scarcely answerable, but which they unwisely reinforced by tightening their blockade of the American coast and increasing their impressments of American seamen. These retaliatory measures strengthened the war party in America, and Madison was forced to realize that a diplomatic victory, founded chiefly on the assertion that black is white, is never victorious and is not diplomacy.
In the meantime Joel Barlow, who had succeeded Armstrong at Paris, attempted to extract from the Due de Bassano, who had succeeded Cadore as foreign minister, some evidence, however feeble, of Napoleon’s good faith. The best that he could obtain was also—in a moral or rational sense—the worst. In March, 1812, Bassano produced a Decree, apparently signed by Napoleon at St. Cloud on April 28, 1811. This Decree expressly revoked the Decrees of Berlin and Milan, and Bassano—a more barefaced personage than Cadore —blandly remarked that Barlow of course knew all about it, since it had been communicated to the American government at the time.
The Decree had never been published, had never been communicated to the American government, and had probably been in existence just long enough for the ink to dry on Napoleon’s signature, if indeed it was signed by Napoleon. When Barlow died of pneumonia in Poland late in December, he was still in pursuit of Napoleon and still looking for something better, but Napoleon by that time was a fugitive from Moscow, and his usefulness to Barlow or to Madison had long since evaporated. That Barlow was one of his victims—and not the least gallant and tragic—may be taken for granted.
But one cannot take it for granted that Madison was a victim. He had permitted himself to be deceived; he had, in fact, hoped to make Napoleon his accomplice in a diplomatic coup which would, if successful, have kept America out of the war. Since Napoleon wanted America to get into the war, and since he always betrayed everyone sooner or later—a fact as well known to Madison as it is to us—it must be admitted that Madison was taking a pretty desperate chance.
Believing as he did that war on a large scale was primitive, wasteful, and a threat to the liberties of a republican people, he probably thought the chance worth taking. And it almost was worth taking—almost, but not quite.