CHAPTER 9: POLITICS
. . . we have a public Ball once every week, a Levee, and never less than two private parties, most of which are dancing parties, and much diversion is to be found in the Galleries of Congress. As to the girls, the city affords some pretty ones, besides some 12 to 15 who have come from a distance, as the saying goes, to look for husbands . . . (Edward Coles to his brothers and sisters , Feb. 3, 1810)
|Cole's early letters from Washington are full of gossip, love, and the affairs of his estate. There is very little talk of politics. He is clearly enjoying his role as protege, eligible bachelor, young gentleman of much importance and some leisure. There are political storms aplenty crackling around him, in a few of which he is peripherally involved. But the basic stuff of his letters has little to do with the great questions affecting national survival. It is made up essentially of private affairs : of a breathless conversation with a young lady whose lover has just been rejected by her family, of teasing remarks about his sister Betsey's boyfriend, of concern about the timing of the sale of his flour, of thoughts about finding a stud for his two mares.
The only mention of politics in these early letters is a reference to Macon Bill #2, the bill that would shape U.S. foreign policy for the next two years. Jefferson's policy of non-intercourse with both England and France having failed, Congress was considering an important modification. If by March 5, 1811, the bill said, either England or France lifted its blockade and ceased interfering with American shipping, the President was to make a public proclamation of that fact. And if within three months after that proclamation the remaining offender did not follow suit, there was to be an immediate embargo on all trade with that country, a situation that was likely to lead to war.
What the President was to do if neither England nor France lifted its blockade was not specified in the bill. Presumably, he could do nothing. The fact that such was the most likely event did not ruffle Congress. Pleased with a compromise that had finally found a majority, they were content to drop that hot potato into the President's lap.
Of all these difficulties Coles says not a word. His only immediate interest in the bill is a rumor he has heard that its passage might raise the price of flour. He asks his brother John to sound out the grain merchants in Richmond and, if the rumor is true, to hold off selling his flour until Congress has voted on the bill.
One other political reference is contained in a letter that has not been preserved, but that was mentioned in the newspapers at the time. A gentleman from Lynchburg, the Alexandria Gazette reported on Oct. 18, 1810, informs us that he saw a letter from Mr. Coles (Mr. Madison's private Secretary) to his brother, Captain Coles, stating that Mr. Smith, the present Secretary of State, is to be superseded by the appointment of Colonel Monroe to that office.
The actual removal of Smith did not take place until March 1811--six months after this news story had appeared. Thus Coles' letter may have been deliberately leaked in order to test public reaction to a move that was being contemplated. The probability is that Madison had decided secretly to replace Smith and was moving slowly and inexorably towards his goal. Such behavior was characteristic of Madison's statecraft: to come to a difficult decision long in advance of its final implementation. The waters had to be tested, the way prepared, the excuse manufactured.
When the appropriate time came, in March 1811, Edward was planning to leave Washington on a trip to the North with his brother John, perhaps because, as he wrote to John, he was sick of the Washington social whirl. I am sick, heartily sick with the number of our parties, he writes to John in late January. I have not been out of company one evening for more than two weeks. Spending every evening in idleness gives to the mornings additional occupation, and thus I am kept continually hurried and continually behind hand.
Of course as secretary, Coles had no choice about whether to attend these parties: most represented social obligations that his position forced him to fulfill. The only way he could escape them for a while would be to leave Washington, which, after a little more than a year at his post, he was quite ready to do.
I see from Sally's letter , he writes John, this moment received, that you are still in Albemarle, and still uncertain when you will leave it, and where you will spend your annual appropriation of two or three hundred dollars in dissipation. Permit me to suggest a trip, replete with improvement and gratification: it is to come on here some time in April and go with me as far North as my purse will admit . . .
Coles planned to leave around May 1. But by the middle of March, John, with his usual indolence, had not yet given him an answer, whereupon he demanded to know definitely what John intended to do. I hope, however, he writes a little testily, you will not give so strong a proof of your indecision, [nor] that you will, after setting out, show an impatience, or want of resolution, by proposing to curtail the trip, or hurry on with fatiguing impatience.
This is the first letter in which Edward seems to feel grown up enough to talk down to his older brother; unfortunately, it is not the last. But eventually John joined Edward and the two set out north in early May.
However, what looks like a vacation was actually an historically significant mission. Coles' letters are misleading: he was involved centrally in a number of important political events while serving Madison in Washington. The first, as we have seen, had to do with replacing Smith with Monroe as secretary of state, and before Coles went on to accomplish the main goal of his trip, he had one final function to perform in relation to that appointment.
As has been noted, action on the installation of Monroe as secretary of state awaited the appropriate time. The trickiest part of the operation was getting rid of Smith , who was from a powerful Baltimore family headed by Senator Samuel Smith, the leader of the mid-Atlantic Republicans, Clearly it made little sense to alienate the Smiths while Congress was in session. The dismissal of Smith, therefore, had to wait for the Congressional recess, which took place on March 4. Soon after, Smith was called in to see the President and offered the post of ambassador to Russia. Naturally, he was incensed, and off he went in a huff to Baltimore to stir up serious trouble for the administration.
Edward was asked to visit the Smiths on his way north to get a sense of the depth of their resentment, and whether they were planning retaliatory moves. They were, of course. At the time of Coles' visit, Robert Smith was busy writing a pamphlet entitled, "Robert Smith's Address to the People of the United States"--an ill-considered attack on Madison that had the effect of confirming the wisdom of Madison's judgment in getting rid of him. But Smith was unlikely to inform Coles of what he was doing.
The Smiths are said not directly to vent their spleen , Edward reports erroneously to Dolley, but to spur on their relatives and friends, many of whom are extremely abusive of the President and Col. Monroe. As a proof of which, it is only necessary to tell the President that those abusive and scurrilous pieces signed Timolian, that made their appearance sometime since in The Whig, are now publicly known (indeed he boasts of being the author) to be from the pen of George Stevenson, the son-in-law of P. Carr and the nephew of the Smiths, who lives in the counting room of Gen. Smith.
Edward, however, was treated quite civilly by them all, he writes, but . . . their displeasure with the President and yourself was very apparent . . . Mr. and Mrs. [Robert] Smith received us very civilly, and after conversing some short time we rose to take leave, when Mrs. Smith asked me if I had been to see Gen. Smith's [Senator Samuel Smith's] family. On my answering in the negative, she said she would go with me to show me the way. We met with the same kind of reception at Gen. Smith. Our visits were the next day returned. We dined and were twice invited to take tea at Gen. Smith's. None of them made any enquiries after you, or the President, except Mrs. Gen. S., who asked after your health. I was quite diverted by the caution and sameness of the enquiries of Gen. and Mr. and Mrs. R. Smith; "I hope you left our friends well in Washington," said they.
Mrs. General Smith's enquiry after Dolley's health was, of course, a means of pointedly omitting an enquiry about Madison's. You will excuse me for having written so much, Coles continues sarcastically, when I tell you that you are somewhat of a favorite with them, for on meeting in the street with D. Leib [a Senator from Pennsylvania], who is one of their leaders in Philadelphia, he made no other enquiry but after your health.
Leaving this nest of enemies, Edward and John went north to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, where Edward was to pursue the other political purpose of his trip.
Edward's mission was to reconcile the two elder statesmen of America, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The bitter quarrel that had divided the two for the past eleven years had important political implications. The strain of trying to assert American sovereignty abroad was threatening to divide the country. The New England Federalists were generally sympathetic to England; the Southern Republicans, to France. Over the issue of war with England, some Federalists threatened secession; their threats came to an actual attempt in 1815. Thus it would be helpful to the preservation of the Union if Adams and Jefferson could patch up their dispute and exert their influence to moderate the extremists on both sides.
Perhaps Coles' success in clearing up the dispute between Madison and Monroe suggested him as a good mediator between Jefferson and Adams. Coles' family was intimate enough with Jefferson so that Adams could be sure both that he was hearing what Jefferson wanted said and that his words would be reported back faithfully to Jefferson. Yet Coles was not a prominent politician and had no personal stake in either side of the quarrel. The fact that Coles was in politics but not of politics made him the perfect person to effect a reconciliation.
In a letter written many years later to the biographer Henry Randall, Coles describes his visit to Adams in the spring of 1811. The fact that Adams knew Coles to be intimate with Jefferson, Coles says, led him to converse freely, and by the nature of his remarks to open the door to expose his grievances, and to invite explanations of the causes of them.
The major source of personal grievance turned out to have been an interview between Jefferson and Adams that took place soon after Adams' defeat by Jefferson in the Presidential election of 1800. Sensing that this was the difficulty, Coles hastened to present Jefferson's version of the incident.
At that time it was possible for the President to be of one party and the Vice President to be of another, which turned out to be the situation when Adams, a Federalist, was elected second President of the United States and Jefferson, a Republican, was elected Vice President. Despite the extreme party rancor at the time, Jefferson, as Vice President, called regularly on the President, and Adams called regularly on him, and from time to time they dined together. . . . and when thus mingling together, Coles said to Adams, no one could see any thing but the most civil and gracious conduct displayed by both. In the correctness of this Mr. A[dams] concurred.
The trouble started when in 1800 Jefferson was elected President and Adams was defeated. Until March 1801, when Jefferson was to be inaugurated, Adams was still President and Jefferson still Vice President. It was therefore proper for Jefferson to continue calling on the President regularly. But when should he resume his calls?
Knowing Mr. Adam's sensitiveness, Coles explained, and wishing to do nothing to arouse it, [Mr. Jefferson] deliberated much as to the proper time for making his usual call on the President; fearing if he called very soon, it might have the appearance of exulting over him, and if on the other hand he delayed it any longer than Mr. Adams thought was usual, [Mr. Adam's] sensitive feelings might construe it into a slight, or the turning the cold shoulder to him, in consequence of his having lost the election.
When he finally concluded the proper time had arrived, Coles continued, Mr Jefferson called on the President and found him alone. But the first glimpse of him convinced Mr. Jefferson he had come too soon. Mr. Adams advanced to him in a hurried and agitated step, and with a tremulous voice said, "You have turned me out, you have turned me out!" Mr. Jefferson replied in a mild and collected manner, "I have not turned you out, Mr. Adams, and am glad to avail myself of this occasion to show I have not, and to explain my views on this subject . . . the late contest was not one of a personal character, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but between the advocates and opponents of certain political opinions and measures, and therefore should produce no unkind feelings between the two men who happend to be placed at the head of the two parties." After these and other details . . . Mr. Jefferson said Mr. Adams became composed, and they took their seats, and talked on the usual topics of a morning visit.
But the affair apparently rankled over eleven years later. Not that this one incident was all that lay between the two, whose complicated friendship and rivalry included the writing of the Declaration of Independence and long negotiations with France and England during the Revolution. Still, Coles reports, his explanation of this incident seemed to break the ice. Adams seemed very pleased by Coles' narrative, which he said could not have been more accurate if Coles had been present and witnessed the scene.
"Mr. Jefferson said I was sensitive, did he?" Adams asked Coles. "Well, I was sensitive. But I had never heard before that Mr. Jefferson had given a second thought as to the proper time for making the particular visit described."
From that point, Coles says, Adams became much warmer in his remarks about Jefferson, displaying friendly feelings for him, in such remarks as, "I always loved Jefferson, I still love him"; expressing in strong terms his disapprobation and mortification at the course pursued by some of his (Adams') friends in their scurrilous abuse of Mr. Jefferson, etc., etc.
On his return to Virginia, Coles then visited Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson's letter to Dr. [Benjamin] Rush, Coles continues in his letter to Randall, shows I communicated to him what passed of an interesting nature during my visit to Mr. Adams, and how instrumental it was in reviving the long suspended correspondence between these two great men of 1776.
The result of Coles' mediation was the resumption of friendly correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, a correspondence that lasted nearly until their almost simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826. It is interesting that Coles played such an important part in two historically significant reconciliations--between Madison and Monroe, and between Adams and Jefferson. Perhaps his success as a mediator was due more to the ripeness of the situations than to the considerable earnestness and personal charm that he brought to the task of reconciliation. Yet he was the catalyst that in both instances brought the antagonistic elements on both sides back into friendly combination. His youth, intelligence, and above all, sincerity, were in these instances put to perfect use in the service of both his political friends and his country.
From Boston Edward and John went north into Maine, then west, traveling across the northland to Albany, Saratoga, Lake George, Niagara, and Pittsburgh, returning to Enniscorthy via Washington on August 26, 1811. They had been gone about four months. And in that time the diplomatic game being played in Washington had shifted completely.
You will recall that Macon Bill #2 gave Madison no power to act in the event that both England and France continued to interfere with American shipping. The bill stipulated that if one ceased to interfere and the other didn't, an embargo was to go into effect on the one that didn't. But if neither ceased intefering, the President could do nothing against either.
Napoleon, always quick to seize an opportunity, declared in November 1811 that France would henceforth cease to interfere with American shipping. The Berlin and Milan decrees of a blockade of European ports were repealed, he said, as far as they applied to American trade. Madison was naturally overjoyed at the opportunity to invoke Macon Bill #2. He quickly proclaimed that France had lifted its decrees and called on England to follow suit or face an American embargo.
The only difficulty with this policy was that Napoleon was lying, as became increasingly clear. American shipping continued to be seized and confiscated by France, and demands for an explanation were met with evasions and excuses. Thus Madison was put in the position of either rescinding his proclamation, in which case he was once again powerless to impose an embargo on England or France, or persisting in his patently false assertion that France had revoked her decrees.
Madison chose to stick by his proclamation, hoping, perhaps, to scare England into repealing its decree (known as the Orders in Council) in order to prevent a Franco-American alliance. He was abused mightily in the press, called (with some justification) a lackey of the tyrant Napoleon, and criticized sharply even within his own party, but he hung on grimly to the course he had chosen.
Coles' view of this period is, of course, sympathetic to Madison. What others see as weakness and indecision, Coles sees as strategy. Yet because Coles was an insider, privy to the President's private thoughts, his version of how the United States got into the War of 1812 may be more accurate than reports pieced together from outside evidence.
During the winter of 1810-11, Coles says, Madison was struggling earnestly to avoid war, attempting to enforce American sovereignty by playing the fears of one enemy against those of the other. It was congenial alike to the life and character of Mr. Madison that he should be reluctant to go to war, Coles writes many years after the event, and that he would not resort to this savage and brutal manner of settling disputes between nations whilst there was hope left of being able to maintain the interest and honor of his country by an appeal to reason, through the rational and Christian form of diplomacy, at which he was conscious of having the advantage by the reasonableness and justice of our claims. To his enlightened and philanthropic heart, the sword was not to be resorted to until the pen had done all it could do.
Apparently, in Madison's mind the pen had done all it could do by the summer of 1811, while Edward and John were touring the North. England justifiably complained that France had repealed its decrees only on paper; in reality it was interfering with American shipping as much as ever. So why should England be expected to do what France had not done? Further, England objected that France had repealed its decree only with regard to American shipping; other goods, namely English goods and those of her colonies, were still blockaded. And England insisted on maintaining its own blockade as long as France maintained hers.
Madison argued that the United States could hardly be held responsible for France's blockade of goods from other nations. But to no avail. England's insistence that the French blockade be lifted for all nations before it would stop seizing American ships convinced Madison that there was no hope of a peaceful solution in that quarter. He did not entirely despair of preserving peace, Coles writes, until the British Govt. made known the fact that a repeal of the obnoxious decrees of the French Govt., as far as they concerned us, would not induce England to alter in a similar way her more annoying orders in council; but contended that France must not only repeal her decrees against us, but against all the world, before England would consent to repeal or modify her orders. On this being avowed, it closed the door to peace, in Mr. Madison's opinion, and made war inevitable, and from that time he never doubted or hesitated for a moment, but his mind was made up and irrevocably fixed on war, as the only course left us by the conduct and position assumed by England.
This firm decision to declare war on England, made nearly a year before war was actually declared in the spring of 1812, was kept absolutely secret--so secret that few people at the time were aware of it. Madison continued negotiations with England, but mainly for the purpose of preparing the nation militarily, economically, and politically for war. Those who were for immediate war called him a coward and a weakling; those against war called him a traitor, an agent of France. His popularity plummeted; his reelection was in doubt. France embarrassed him continually by demonstrating to all the world that it had not the slightest intention of respecting American sovereignty. Yet slowly Madison guided the nation into war with England as the only hope, he believed, of salvaging our right to be treated as an independent state. No one knew that his mind had been made up months before, that the continued negotiations with England were merely to buy time to build up the army and to convince everyone that the last possible step had been taken in the direction of peace. It was necessary that he appear to the world as a man not yet able to make up his mind, that it appear that events, and not the President, had irrevocably pushed the country into war.
While negotiations with England were going on, Coles writes, a class of irritable men, to be found in all communities, were eager for war, and were fretful and impatient at delay. They thought President Madison and other prudent and considerate men were too tolerant and forbearing. No preparations were thought by them requisite for war. It was only necessary to declare it, and its existence would arouse a patriotism which would carry it on. Let one drop, they said, of American blood be shed and it will fill our ranks with men, and our treasure with loans. When Gallatin [the secretary of the treasury] and others stated or alluded to the necessity of providing revenue for at least paying the interest of the loans, they were denounced as enemies of war, and opponents to resisting English oppression.
There were, on the other hand, a number of sound, prudent, and patriotic men who, justly appreciating the awful responsibility and consequences of war, were anxious if possible to avoid it and if it should prove unavoidable, to carry it on in a way most advantageous and honorable to the country. They were in favor of making another diplomatic effort for peace, and contended it was not only proper in itself but would give time to put the nation in a better position for carrying on the war, if it should ultimately take place. In this state of things, and with a strong conviction that it would add to our strength, and redound to the character of the country, both at home and abroad, that the war should be declared by a large and influential majority, President Madison so shaped his course as to effect this desirable object to as great a degree as possible. To do this he endeavored to moderate the zeal and impatience of the ultra belligerent men, and to stimulate the more moderate and forbearing. To check those who were anxious to rush on hastily to extreme measures without due preparation, and to urge those one who lagged too far behind.
The winter of 1811-12 was a difficult time for Madison. He had made his choice, yet it was clearly possible that he was leading his nation into disaster, and that the noble experiment handed down to him by Washington, Adams, and Jefferson was about to be wrecked by his miscalculation. Whether he was reasonably certain of his course or wracked by indecision we will probably never know, but that he had cause for agony is indisputable. He was not a charismatic leader, and his inability to unite the nation on any course of action must have been frustrating to him. He was wise, far-seeing, prudent, forbearing, devoted to his country, but not forceful. His tactic was to guide events patiently and quietly rather than seizing them and bending them to his will. Whether he was the right or wrong leader for that time and place will be debated endlessly; his ultimate success may or may not have been due to chance. But in the winter of 1811-12 he was sailing the ship of state in the midst of a midnight fog and had no way of knowing whether he would wreck it or bring it safely to harbor.
Thus it must have been with a great deal of excitement and pleasure that he learned of the existence of the Henry papers, which popped up fortunately in February 1812 as the perfect means of uniting the nation against England.
John Henry was a spy hired by Sir James Craig, Governor of Canada, to report on the sentiment for secession in New England and to insinuate, though with great caution, that the Federalists might find help from England through communication with the Canadian Governor.
Henry did his spying in 1809, then returned to Canada to collect his promised reward. But as often happens in such cases, he was offered less than he thought his information was worth. After a few fruitless attempts to collect what he believed was his rightful due, he set sail for Boston, determined to sell his papers to the American government, which he was sure would be willing to pay him more than he was being offered by England.
Enter the Count de Crillon, one of the more fascinating con-men of the day. Meeting Henry on the ship to Boston, he somehow got the distraught man to confide in him and arranged to be his agent in selling the papers to the United States government. When they arrived in Boston, Crillon persuaded Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, to write a letter to the President introducing him as the son of the celebrated duke who besieged Gibralter, and Captain Henry as a great military character and in every point truly respectable.
In January 1812 Crillon and Henry arrived in Washington, where Henry went into hiding while Crillon wormed his way into Washington society. He made friends with Senator Brent of Virginia, a habitual drunkard who resided at his boardinghouse, and by Senator Brent was introduced at the French Legation, the President's House, and other gathering places of Washington society. By January 30 he was already dining at the President's House, telling of secret trade between England and France, which caused Madison to remark somewhat ruefully that it seemed quite necessary to become a belligerent in order to enjoy the advantages of commerce.
Yet who was this Count de Crillon, who professed to know Napoleon's secrets, who possessed a cordial letter from Field Marshal Bessieres, Duke of Istica and hero of Austerlitz, who was supposedly the son of an illustrious family with a large estate in St. Martial, yet whom no one had ever heard of? Those who sympathized with England called him an imposter ; those with the French, a brilliant and fascinating addition to Washington society. He had, after all, a letter of introduction from the governor of Massachusetts and was received regularly in the President's House. Besides, it was known that he was a man of many secrets and that he was dealing with the government on a matter of some importance.
Soon after his arrival in Washington Crillon let Serurier, the French ambassador, know that he had access to papers that would be extremely damaging to the British. He had been forced to leave France, he said, because of certain youthful indiscretions, and now he was anxious to perform a service for the Emperor that would allow him to return. He told Serurier that a certain John Henry, formerly a British spy, was now in hiding and wanted to sell his papers to the U.S. government. Crillon gave Serurier copies of the documents, and an excited Serurier sent him quickly on to Monroe.
During the month of February 1812 rumors of what was going on spread through Washington. The British Legation suspected that somehow Monroe had gotten hold of the Henry papers and that Madison was about to use them to push Congress into a declaration of war. On March 9, the British ambassador learned that the President was about to send a special message to Congress. The secretary of the Legation, St. John Baker, rushed over to the Capitol to find out what the subject of that message was. On his way to the Capitol, Baker met Edward Coles, who was just returning from delivering the message along with the Henry papers.
What's it about , asked the Englishman , according to a contemporary account. Nothing, coolly answered the bearer of the message, just the communication of a man named Henry. With whom, replied Baker, completely horrified, with Sir James Craig? There you are, responded Mr. Coles, smiling, and made him a profound bow.
Baker's blunder had the effect of instantly validating the charge that Henry had spied for England, since there was no way that Baker could have known to whom the papers were addressed unless the charge were true. Coles led Baker cleverly into that blunder, probably hoping merely for a blush or flicker of an eyelid at the name Henry that would indicate that Monroe had not paid Crillon $50,000 for nothing. What he got instead was public confirmation that England had attempted to subvert the United States--a considerable help to Madison, who needed all the help he could get when the predictable storm broke as the papers were read aloud in their entirety to the Congress.
Unfortunately, the papers themselves were not nearly as sensational as the mere fact that they existed. Because Henry, with the agreement of the Madison administration, had erased the names of all Americans implicated in them, the papers' teeth had been pulled before they ever had a chance to bite. Madison had at that moment an opportunity to destroy his enemies, to disgrace the Federalist party for good and all and to break its power everywhere but in New England. But characteristically he decided that the unity of the nation was more important than the good of his party or administration, and that driving the Federalists into disgrace by revealing the treason of some of their prominent members would only alienate them further, making it less likely that they would support the nation should war come.
The administration , Serurier writes of Madison's intentions, will say that it sees only the crime of the foreigner, that it does not seek the guilty among the citizens, that, if there are any, it hopes this warning with suffice them, that they will feel they are under the hand of the government, and that all the members of the great American family should see in this fortunate discovery only reasons for coming together and reuniting against the common enemy.
The result of Madison's statesmanship was, in the short run, a barrage of angry criticism from those whose reputations he had saved. The papers were forgeries, they declared, containing nothing of any value; they named not a single American who was interested in secession or union with Canada; the government had paid $50,000 to a bunch of swindlers for nothing. But in the long run, perhaps, Madison's forbearance paid off: towards the end of the war, when some Federalist leaders in New England actually met to discuss secession, they did not find the popular support for which they had hoped. The nation did hold together, and Madison's gesture for unity may have provided some of the necessary glue.
These are the qualities of leadership that Coles learned from Madison while in Washington and that he later put into practice so successfully in Illinois: quiet forbearance, total disinterestedness, a refusal to honor politically motivated slander with a defense, a slow, tireless working for good through reason, patience, and appeals to common interests. Not a colorful political style, but an effective one, one which found its successes long after the event and rarely took credit for them. One which overcame the temptation to do what seemed forceful and popular in order to pursue steadily what it perceived to be wise.
By taking the teeth out of the Henry papers, Madison reduced their value to his cause. Still, they did create a furor that helped shift American opinion towards greater belligerence towards Great Britain. For weeks after the dramatic unveiling of the papers before Congress, Washington was buzzing with speculation about whether they were genuine, whether they were worth $50,000, and who precisely Crillon and Henry were. That he [Crillon] is the person he professes to be I have no doubt, Elbridge Gerry writes to Coles somewhat defensively on March 17. Of his views and pursuits, I can form no opinion.
Gerry was, after all, the person who supplied Crillon with the letter of introduction that gave him access to high places. It was even charged in Congress that the Henry papers were a plot to discredit the Federalists in Massachusetts so that Gerry could be reelected governor without significant opposition.
When Congress wanted to question John Henry about his papers, they found that he had sailed for France. Not, however, with the $50,000. He had been unburdened of that by the Count de Crillon, who had sold him the Crillon ancestral estate in St. Martial as a place of refuge from the excitement he had stirred. Soon after, the Count himself set sail for France, preceded on his journey by a letter from Serurier praising his conduct and begging the indulgence of the Emperor on his behalf. But upon his arrival in France he was thrown into prison and left there despite his fantastic claims that he had been to cabinet meetings in the United States, had secret information on American policies, etc., etc. He was, in fact, a low-born gambler by the name of Paul Emile Soubiron, who had sold poor John Henry a worthless piece of paper.
When the news came from France that Crillon was a scoundrel and an imposter, there was embarrassment all around, but by that time the point was no longer relevant. American public opinion was incensed against the British, and now at last Congress was ready to approve a declaration of war. If only France had cooperated.
Unfortunately, just at this time news arrived that a French squadron was seizing and burning American ships on the high seas. Napoleon was continuing his policy of insisting there was no blockade while enforcing it vigorously.
Livid, Monroe called in Serurier and scolded him. Well, sir, it is then decided that we are to receive nothing but outrages from France! he shouted. And at what a moment too! At the very instant when we were going to war with her enemies . . . You know that warlike measures [against England] have been taken for three months past; adopted slowly, they have been progressively followed up. We have made use of Henry's documents as a last means of exciting the nation and Congress; you have seen by all the use we have made of them whither we are aiming; within a week we were going to propose the embargo, and the declaration of war was the immediate consequence of it. A ship has arrived from London, bringing us despatches to February 5, which contain nothing offering a hope of repeal of the orders; this was all that was needed to carry the declaration of war, which would have passed almost unanimously. It is at such a moment that your frigates come and burn our ships, destroy all our work, and put the Administration in the falsest and most terrible position in which a government can find itself placed.
Immediately a clamor arose for war against both England and France. Awaiting an explanation of France's conduct, due soon to arrive on the Hornet, Edward writes to John: Much will depend upon the cargo brought in this vessel; if it is favorable, it will tend very much to unite all parties in the war against G.B.; if very unfavorable, I shall not be surprised if they take warlike steps against both nations; they have got too far now, I think, to submit to either or to both. The only danger is that if France should not comply with our just expectations, her policy will be so doubtful as to leave us at a loss to know what is her real intention; this will tend to distract and perplex, but I hope if she pursues this course we will treat her as we will treat G.B.--by waging war against both. But it is to be hoped she understands her own interest better than to pursue such a course.
The Hornet brought no explanations from France, facing Madison with a terrible choice. To go to war with both England and France, as Coles had somewhat hot-headedly hoped, would be the most honorable, but probably the most disasterous course. To go to war with neither would put the United States back in the helpless position from which she had started, her cargoes and ships confiscated, her seamen impressed, her rights ignored. War with England seemed to be the only course which made sense. Yet just at the point at which nearly a year of effort was about to bear fruit and Congress was ready at last to declare war by a convincing majority, France had begun to undermine the pretext for war and England had begun to show signs of making concessions to the American position.
Regardless of the waxing and waning of diplomatic signs, Madison decided that the time was ripe for a declaration of war. Congress and the nation were at long last ready; to wait longer was to risk all. The vote for war in Congress was 79-49 in the House and 17-13 in the Senate, easily enough to give Madison his declaration but too close for so grave an issue. More ominously, the vote was split along sectional lines, with the South and West voting for war and the Northeast voting against.
On June 18, 1812, Madison issued his declaration of war, unaware that one day earlier, on June 17, the British government had repealed the Orders in Council.
The War of 1812 was a war of ironies. Had telephone lines been strung beneath the Atlantic, it would never have occurred. It was declared one day after its cause had been removed, and its greatest and most decisive battle, the Battle of New Orleans, took place after the treaty of peace had been signed. It was fiercely opposed by the section of the country most directly injured by England, and fiercely advocated by the sections of the country with least cause for complaint. Five days after the United States had declared war on England, supposedly to protect its right to trade freely, Napoleon invaded Russia, supposedly to prevent Russia from continuing to trade freely with the United States. The lines of friends and enemies were all tangled: Russia and America were both at war to protect the rights of neutrals to trade, yet Russia was allied with England against France and America was allied with France against England.
The final irony was that Madison's policy was precisely right and bore the fruit he had intended, but too late. Madison knew that England had its hands full with Napoleon and would not consider its quarrel with the United States important enough to commit badly needed troops and equipment to battle on the North American continent. His purpose in declaring war was not military but diplomatic. He assumed that taking that final step would force England, fighting for its life in Europe, to make the concessions he considered necessary to establish America's right as a sovereign nation.
Who could have known then that in a few months Napoleon, the most powerful man in the world, would be running for his life across a frozen wasteland? In June he attacked Russia at the head of an army of half a million men. By September he was in Moscow, having conquered Russia almost as quickly as he could march across it. By November his army was no more.
Had the French emperor not been broken down , Madison writes years later, as he was to a degree at variance with all probability and which no human sagacity could anticipate, can it be doubted that Great Britain would have been constrained by her own situation and the demands of her allies to listen to our reasonable terms of reconciliation? The moment chosen for war would therefore have been well chosen, if chosen with reference to the French expedition against Russia; and although not so chosen, the coincidence between the war and the expedition promised at the time to be as favorable as it was fortuitous.
Unfortunately, the coincidence turned out to be disastrous. Instead of an England fearful of its survival, facing an enemy who was master of the entire European continent, the United States was at war with an England triumphant and unopposed, free to concentrate the greater part of her energies against her half-hearted and poorly prepared foe. Of course England, after the destruction of Napoleon, was no longer interested in reconciliation. She was not ready to make any concessions respecting American sovereignty. The United States found itself stuck with a war in earnest. What had seemed in June of 1812 to be the only sensible alternative had become by that winter a course which seemed to be heading the infant democracy towards defeat, dismemberment, and an early grave.