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If Only Mr. Madison Had Waited

March 2021
13min read

Gambling on a diplomatic coup with a wily Napoleon, he maneuvered America into the needless War of 1812

war of 1812
Major General Andrew Jackson and his soldiers claim a victory in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Georgia National Guard

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 facts—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 an avoidable 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 down simultaneously. When Hull surrendered at Detroit on August 16, 1812, Napoleon 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. Napoleon 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, Napoleon 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 French, that 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.

The Napoleonic Wars became a gigantic trade war, and the Americans, both strategically and as a trading people, were an object of ferocious interest to both the great belligerents. Each demanded their allegiance, and the measures which each concerted for the destruction of the other gradually enmeshed the United States. Jefferson’s great Embargo Act of 1807 was essentially a response to these siege tactics. When the Embargo failed in 1809, a sortie en masse—to which Madison desperately resorted or was forced to resort in 1812—was always a possibility.

Madison’s failure in statesmanship—if failure it was, and not a yielding to intolerable pressures at home and abroad—must be examined in the setting of these tactics. They cannot be summarized with precision. Even the Rule of 1756, which the British revived in 1803, and which said that an enemy’s colonies were closed to neutral trade in time of war if such trade had been forbidden in time of peace, bristles with perplexities. But after Trafalgar in 1805 the two systems take on a fairly intelligible shape. In May, 1806, the British issued an Order-in-Council, declaring the coast of Europe to be under blockade from Brest to the Elbe. A portion of this coast, namely from Ostend to the Seine, was under rigorous blockade and was forbidden to neutral shipping; but neutrals might trade with the remainder (for example, with the ports of Brest, Emden, and Amsterdam) under certain conditions which appeared to relax the Rule of 1756.

The United States had replied to the Rule of 1756 and its extensions with a Non-Importation Act, closing its ports to a long list of British goods, but this act had been suspended and held in abeyance as a threat. Negotiations appeared to be the next step. Monroe and Pinkney in London contrived a treaty with the British which was so unfavorable that Jefferson could not bring himself to submit it to the Senate. Monroe then returned to America in a fit of the sulks which was not very becoming to his honest and loyal nature.

The British Order of May, 1806, was somewhat conciliatory; but it was a “paper blockade,” just as easily enforced outside the harbor of New York as along the coast of Europe. It was the sort of pretension which Europeans and Americans had already challenged in the Armed Neutrality of 1800 and the Model Plan of 1776. Napoleon, therefore, was not without support when he issued the first of two famous decrees, the Berlin Decree, on November 21, 1806, denouncing the British blockades as illegal and intolerable.

But with Austerlitz and Jena behind him, he was capable of something more than denunciations. He declared the British Isles themselves to be in a state of blockade, prohibited all commerce with them and all trade in British goods, and closed the ports of Europe to any vessel coming from Great Britain or from her colonies. Napoleon announced that he would withdraw his Decree if the British would withdraw their Order. Actually, it was the only way in which he could bring the British to their knees.

The British were traditionally not backward at this kind of warfare. By the middle of 1807, moreover, their government had drifted into the hands of a set ol Tories who, while not indisposed to quarrel among themselves, were united in representing the thoughts of the country gentlemen, the Navy, the shipping magnates—of entities, that is, which had always found some difficulty in remembering what century they were in.

The nominal head of this government was the Duke of Portland, who was sinking into imbecility; the actual head was Spencer Perceval, chancellor of the exchequer, a lawyer who could, almost in consecutive sentences, condemn the sin of Sunday travel and defend the bombardment of Copenhagen. The spokesman was George Canning, the foreign secretary, temporarily deprived of ideas but well furnished with a vocabulary of injurious epithets. The personnel of this Cabinet was changed from time to time—by death (Portland), by assassination (Perceval), by intrigue (Canning)—but not its character.

On November 11, 1807, this government issued a set of Orders-in-Council, announcing that all trade between Europe and the colonies of France and her allies must, even in neutral ships, go through the ports of Great Britain and subject itself to British license and toll. This was something more than retaliation. It was a deliberate attempt to use the war as a means of monopolizing the colonial trade.

Napoleon’s answer to this inexcusable measure was the Decree of Milan of December 17, 1807. He decreed that any ship which allowed itself to be searched by a British vessel, or made a voyage to Great Britain, or paid any duty to the British government, had denationalized itself and was fair prize. To his mind, which would always rather astound the reason than satisfy it, the absurdity of this doctrine was particularly pleasing.

And now the two structures were complete, and the Americans were fairly caught between them. If they submitted to the Orders, their trade would become English and liable to confiscation in every port under Napoleon’s control; if they bowed to the Decrees, they would have no merchant fleet at all. “As for France and England,” wrote Jefferson in 1812, “the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates.” In the hierarchy of crime, piracy stands higher than robbery.

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.

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.

The expenses of the Peninsular campaign, the drain of their subsidies to Europe, the cumulative effect of American Embargo, Non-Importation, and Non-Intercourse had taught even such stubborn mercantilists as the Tory Cabinet that a monopoly of the colonial trade was not so valuable as access to open markets. On June 16 Canning announced the Tory Cabinet’s decision to suspend the Orders, and on June 23 they were in fact suspended. But on June 18 the United States had declared war and, by the time the news of the suspension crossed the Atlantic, there was no turning back.

What a different reputation Madison’s presidency might have borne if only he could have waited two months longer! But he had long since lost control of events, he had coerced himself into the arms of the war party, and reputations, after all, are rarely made or lost by the calendar. As for Napoleon, whom Madison had never trusted and had learned to hate, he disappeared immediately from American calculations and in the direction of Elba, Waterloo, and St. Helena.

Since the Jeffiersonians gained Louisiana in 1803 and did not exactly lose the War of 1812, perhaps they got the better of him—or, perhaps, since the Jeffersonians were turned into nationalists in the process, it was the terrible, transforming emperor who had the last word.


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