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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6

Chapter Five

 p47  President Madison Inherits Trouble

David Montague Erskine was a well-intentioned young man who believed in his soul that blood is thicker than water. Eldest son of Great Britain's Lord Chancellor, he had set out upon a diplomatic career, owing his first appointment to Charles James Fox. In the year 1800 he had had the boldness to wed an American, the daughter of General John Cadwalader, thus allying himself to an illustrious Philadelphia family.

In 1809 Erskine was British Minister to the United States and it pained him to observe the strained relations existing between his own people and those of his wife. He proposed to do something about it. What a feather it would be in his cap if he could bring the two branches of the English-speaking world into harmony, an ideal which he had symbolized by his own marriage! Who could have been in a better position than he to see the right on both sides?

Upon the repeal of the Embargo, Congress passed the Non‑Intercourse Act, under which the commerce of America was declared open to all the world, with the exception of those two irritating countries — Great Britain and France, whose ships were excluded from American ports. No sooner had Madison's administration been organized than Erskine entered upon negotiations with the Secretary of State, Robert Smith, and the President. Smith, a Marylander and a man of limited intellect and talent, had been foisted upon Madison by a political clique that was jealous of Albert Gallatin who, by every measure of training and ability, should have had the post. As a result, Robert Smith was a mere figurehead while Madison performed the functions of Secretary of State as well as those of the chief executive.

With a willingness on both sides to arrive at a happy conclusion,  p48 the negotiations proceeded swiftly and without hitch. Erskine inquired of the President if, should the orders in council be withdrawn, the United States would reciprocate by opening American ports to British trade. Having been assured upon this point, on April 9 Erskine addressed a message to the Secretary of State which read: "I am authorized to declare that His Majesty's Orders in Council of January and November, 1807, will have been withdrawn, as respects the United States, on the tenth of June next." Immediately the President issued a proclamation to the people informing them that on the same date American ports once more would be open to British commerce.

The President's proclamation was received with a delirium of joy. The shipping men envisioned their vessels once more filled with rich cargoes; the merchants in the seaboard towns saw their shops once more displaying British goods to a trade-starved people. All credit was owed to the energetic little man who had brought it about. Madison at once became a popular hero. Even the Federalists raised their glasses in toasts to him. The visionary Jefferson, thank heaven, was safe in Monticello where, without injury to the republic, he could proceed with his research into the theories of government. But at last the country had in the White House a sane, sensible, practical man who would leave business alone; who had achieved the impossible by persuading Great Britain to withdraw her obnoxious orders.

News traveled slowly across the Atlantic in those days. Through May and June the country exulted, meanwhile preparing for the resumption of trade on a colossal scale. Then, suddenly, on July 31, the bubble burst. David Montague Erskine, His Majesty's Minister to the United States, notified the President that his government had repudiated the agreement!

In the fervor of accomplishment, David Montague Erskine had exceeded his instructions. At least that is what Canning declared, although there were some who hinted that old King George III, reviving temporarily from his insanity and recalling old scores, had put his foot down on any concessions to the American people. Be that as it may, His Majesty's Government had spoken, His Majesty's Minister was in disgrace and not even his father, the Lord Chancellor, could save him. Along with the message of repudiation came  p49 the order for Erskine's recall. David Montague Erskine was a well-intentioned young man, but good intentions meant nothing to Canning. To him a blunder was a blunder.

Erskine's embarrassment was as nothing compared to that of Madison. The honeymoon which the American people grant their newly elected presidents was definitely over. Alas! there was never to be another one for him. On August 9 Madison was compelled to issue a second proclamation rescinding the first. While loyal Madisonians cursed England for her perfidy, loyal Federalists bemoaned the toasts they had drunk and condemned Madison as an unconscionable blunderer no better than his predecessor. The prospects for peace had been so bright, and now the two countries once more were poles apart.

The year 1809 dragged on to its weary close. In England the Portland ministry fell, giving way to that of Spencer Perceval. Canning was succeeded in the Foreign Office by Lord Richard Wellesley, fresh from his triumphs in India and brother of the Wellesley who was making history in the Spanish Peninsula. Wellesley was capable, but the Perceval Ministry, its leader a weakling, was shot through with intrigue and it was as much as its members could do to keep their skins whole. Minister Pinkney found his task in London even more hopeless than it had been when he had to deal with Canning.

The new Ministry dispatched to America Francis James Jackson to resume the now old, time-honored negotiations over the Chesapeake affair. The new envoy was better known as "Copenhagen" Jackson, he having acted as messenger in delivering the ultimatum which resulted in the rape of the Danish fleet. He arrived with a titled German wife, a coach and four and a retinue of servants to show the crude American backwoodsmen how civilized people lived. The mushroom village of Washington, with its muddy roads and its miserable climate, was a sorry descent for a man who was accustomed to consort with royalty in the capitals of Europe, previous experiences of which he was quick to relate to all who came within earshot. A more useless person for the work in hand could hardly have been found. One thing at least he condescended to praise. He found the horseback riding in the envoys of the capital city agreeable.  p50 Madison he described as "a plain and rather mean looking little man" and Jackson could not help but "contrast this audience with others I had had with most of the sovereigns of Europe."

When Jackson got down to business he proceeded at once to lecture the President and the Secretary of State on the art of diplomacy. He intimated that both of them must have known that Erskine was exceeding his instructions in the previous negotiations. As unschooled as they may have been in diplomacy Mr. Madison and Mr. Smith had no intention of letting Mr. Jackson scold them. When, in a second letter, he renewed his insinuations, they requested his recall. And thus another envoy added fuel to the flame.

It was now obvious to all save the Federalists that negotiations with Great Britain were a waste of time. Having no better recourse the Administration undertook to see what it could do with France. Early in 1810 M. de Champagny, Duke of Cadore, French Foreign Minister, had informed General Armstrong that if the British were to withdraw the orders in council, Napoleon would withdraw his Berlin Decree. This conciliatory attitude on the part of the Emperor was, however, overshadowed a month or two later when he published the Rambouillet Decree, ordering the sale of the American vessels seized under the Bayonne Decree of the previous year. What went into the imperial maw was not likely to come out while the Emperor was straining every effort to finance his military campaigns. Yet the American Government tried to make itself believe that Napoleon might, if only by accident, sometime be guilty of sincerity.

Non‑intercourse had proved to be quite as ineffective as the embargo in bringing Great Britain and France to terms; therefore the administration tried a new combination. On May 1, 1810, Congress repealed the non‑importation and non‑intercourse laws. In their stead it passed the act known as "Macon's No. 2," after the gentleman from North Carolina who had sponsored it. "Macon's No. 2" stipulated that if either Great Britain or France should revoke or modify respectively their orders or decrees before March 3, 1811, then within three months the United States would revive non‑intercourse against the other.

Little did Congress realize, when it passed the act, that it was dealing a hand that Napoleon would be delighted to play. What, for example, was to prevent a gentleman possessing an easy conscience  p51 like Napoleon from informing the United States that he had revoked the Berlin Decree, then demanding that she revive non‑intercourse against Great Britain? How could he more easily embroil the blood cousins? As a matter of fact, while the British fleet swept the seas, the Berlin Decree was nothing more than a scrap of paper. It was the Bayonne and Rambouillet decrees that did the damage when American ships ventured into the ports of France. Napoleon knew Britain's stubbornness too well to believe that she would withdraw her orders. Corsican shrewdness could count on winning the day while the two stolid Anglo-Saxon countries butted their heads together. The cards having been dealt, Napoleon proceeded to play his hand.

On August 5, 1810, Champagny addressed a note to Armstrong officially declaring that the Berlin and Milan decrees had been revoked as far as they affected the United States, upon the understanding that Great Britain would now revoke her orders in council. If Britain did not revoke her orders then, the note concluded, "the United States will cause their rights to be respected by the British." What could this mean except that Napoleon expected the United States to go to war with Great Britain as part of the bargain?

Yet Napoleon refused to issue a public announcement of the revocation of the decrees; and, for lack of such announcement, Great Britain refused to believe that the decrees had actually been revoked. No arguments on the part of the Secretary of State or of Minister Pinkney in London could persuade her. On the other hand, her ministers pointed out that at the very moment when the decrees were supposed to have been revoked, the United States was protesting the seizure of her vessels by France. To this the Americans replied that the seizures complained against had been made under the Rambouillet and Bayonne decrees, which were no concern of Great Britain's. As a matter of fact the United States Government had hoped that Napoleon would restore the American vessels, but instead he held on to them waiting to see what action the United States would take against Britain. On November 2 President Madison issued a proclamation reviving non‑intercourse against Great Britain to take effect in February, 1811, if Great Britain had not by that time rescinded her orders.

At last Pinkney concluded that all overtures to the Perceval Ministry  p52 were hopeless and early in 1811 departed from London. Not only did Great Britain retain her orders, but she added insult to injury by sending men-of‑war to the American coast to prey upon outgoing merchantmen and, not infrequently, to impress sailors from them. Her only concession was to designate Augustus John Foster, former secretary of the British Legation in Washington, as minister plenipotentiary to resume negotiations on the Chesapeake affair. His appointment was announced on February 15. Some two months later the American public was again aroused when, almost within sight of New York, a British frigate believed to be the Guerrière, under the command of Captain James R. Dacres, halted the American merchantman Spitfire and removed from her deck a sailor whom her captain claimed to be a native of Maine.

On May 6 the frigate President, 44 guns, pride of the American Navy and Commodore John Rodgers' flagship, was lying at anchor in Chesapeake Bay, off Annapolis. Near midnight a messenger arrived from Washington bearing orders to the frigate to put to sea at once and investigate the British man-of‑war lying off New York. Commodore Rodgers was not aboard the President, having gone for a visit to his estate, Sion Hill, near Havre de Grace, 70 miles distant at the head of the bay. He must be notified of the order at once.

At midnight there put out from the President one of her boats commanded by midshipman Matthew Calbraith Perry, who in later years was to win fame for his voyage to Japan. Inspired by the importance of his mission, young Perry zealously urged his men forward. All through the night and all of the next day the little boat pressed on without a pause, the sailors taking turns at the oars, fresh men replacing those that fell exhausted. By nightfall the boat had reached Havre de Grace and Perry leaped out and raced up the hill to report to the Commodore. Apprised of his orders Rodgers joined the party for the return journey, and this time they were fortunate to have a favorable breeze and raised a sail. By 3 P.M. on May 8 the boat with the Commodore aboard drew alongside the President. The trip of seventy miles each way, or a total of 140 miles, had been made in the average time of 3.6 miles an hour. The story is said to have been preserved in the annals of the Perry and Rodgers families.

It seems odd that with a good road all the way from Annapolis to Havre de Grace, and in a state famed for its horsemen, no one  p53 thought of carrying the news to the Commodore by mounted courier, a means both swifter and less exhausting to the messenger. But then, of course, these were sailors. It is said that in later life Matthew Perry never mentioned the incident. Closed it have been that, upon reflection, he concluded that it might not enhance his reputation?

On May 11 the President set sail from Annapolis and, on her way down the bay, took ammunition aboard. On the 16th she passed out of the capes and at noon sighted a sail to the eastward. At 2 P.M. the stranger approached and the President displayed her standard and the Commodore's pennant. Without replying to the President's signals, the stranger altered her course and bore away to the south.

The President at once took up the chase which continued throughout the afternoon. It was not until 8:15 P.M., as darkness was closing in, that the President came within hailing distance. According to his testimony at the court-martial which followed the incident Rodgers at once inquired, "What ship is that?" From the stranger came the reply, "What ship is that?" Rodgers made no reply, considering that as he had made the first inquiry he had a right to receive the first answer.

Again, according to Rodgers' account, a shot suddenly was fired by the stranger which struck one of the masts of the President. Almost immediately a gun from the President responded, and the stranger countered with a broadside and musketry. The engagement now became general and, within a few minutes, the guns of the stranger were silenced. Rodgers kept his battle lights lit and cruised in the vicinity throughout the night. At dawn he discovered his adversary a mile away, evidently badly injured. He approached her and dispatched Lieutenant Creighton in a boat with offers of assistance. The vessel proved to be His Majesty's sloop Little Belt, 18 guns, under the command of Captain A. B. Bingham. The Briton refused help and set sail for Halifax, where Bingham told his story, which differed in all the important details from that of Commodore Rodgers.

Bingham, it seems, had a rendezvous with the frigate Guerrière and ran into the President by mistake. He asserted that he had been the first to hail and that the President had been the first to fire. Furthermore, he declared that the engagement had lasted more than an hour.

 p54  Mr. Augustus J. Foster sidetracked his negotiations over the Chesapeake momentarily to demand satisfaction from the United States Government for the behavior of the President. He found it strange that as early as 8:15 P.M., on an evening in May, in a southern latitude, Commodore Rodgers had not had light enough to see that his adversary was a mere sloop and no match for a frigate. He protested that a British vessel on a friendly mission should have been subjected to such ill treatment. Monroe, who had succeeded Smith as Secretary of State, replied curtly that the United States had a perfect right to investigate men-of‑war near her shores that acted suspiciously and pointed out that nobody was more jealous of that right than Great Britain herself. The argument must have been conclusive, for the British Government let the matter drop.

News of the engagement was received with joy throughout the country, save in Federalist circles in New England. For in the popular mind at last the navy had avenged the insult to the Chesapeake. Upon his arrival in New York Commodore Rodgers was wined and dined and given the freedom of the city while President Madison, without waiting to receive a report, wrote him a letter of congratulation. Great Britain contented herself with blowing off steam through her press. The London Courier, which publisher Niles of Baltimore's Niles' Register described as being "controlled by Perceval, Wellesley & Co.," thus took the United States to task.

"The account given by the American is anything but a true one. The American government having published Rodgers' account and approved of his conduct, thereby precluding all negotiation, Captain Bingham's letter having placed it beyond a doubt that the hostile conduct of the American was unprovoked, and that being coupled with Admiral Sawyer's previous instruction, demonstrative of the anxiety of our government not to give the least provocation or cause of offense to the United States, there is but one course left to us to pursue. The blood of our murdered countrymen must be avenged and war must ensue. The conduct of America leaves us no alternative; and therefore it is idle, if not worse, to treat the subject as if it were an 'inconvenient dilemma which ministers,' according to the opposition 'have solely to attribute to their own folly in not confirming Mr. Erskine's sensible arrangement.'º Of Mr. Erskine's sensible arrangement we have so often expressed our opinion  p55 that it were unnecessary to repeat it. We have behaved toward America with unexampled forbearance, but the forbearance has produced insolence, and that insolence must be punished!"

The London Gazette, official organ of the government, added the comment: "We have now the word of honor of Captain Bingham, that the firing was commenced by Rodgers; and who will put the veracity of an American captain in competition with that of an honorable British officer!"

The comments of the Courier and the Gazette were picked up by the Republican press in the United States and given conspicuous place, thus keeping the pot boiling; and useless was it for the extreme Federalists to protest in their journals that Bingham was right and Rodgers wrong. So the two great English-speaking countries continued to pursue their divergent ways as Napoleon had intended them to do. Well might the little Corsican sneer at Anglo-Saxon intelligence. His diplomacy was working magnificently.

Page updated: 25 Jun 13