History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/II:15
Chapter 15: Failure of EmbargoEdit
Early in August, at the time when public feeling against the embargo was beginning to turn into personal hatred of Jefferson, news of the Spanish outbreak reached America, and put a new weapon into Federalist hands. The embargo, in its effects upon Spain and her colonies was a powerful weapon to aid Napoleon in his assault on Spanish liberty and in his effort to gain mastery of the ocean. In an instant England appeared as the champion of human liberty, and America as an accomplice of despotism. Jefferson, in his pursuit of Florida, lost what was a thousand times more valuable to him than territory,—the moral leadership which belonged to the head of democracy. The New England Federalists seized their advantage, and proclaimed themselves the friends of Spain and freedom. Their press rang with denunciations of Napoleon, and of Jefferson his tool. For the first time in many years the Essex Junto stood forward as champions of popular liberty.
So deeply mired was Jefferson in the ruts of his Spanish policy and prejudices that he could not at once understand the revolution which had taken place. On hearing the earlier reports of Spanish resistance his first thought was selfish. "I am glad to see that Spain is likely to give Bonaparte employment. Tant mieux pour nous!" To each member of his Cabinet he wrote his hopes:—
- "Should England make up with us, while Bonaparte continues at war with Spain, a moment may occur when we may without danger of commitment with either France or England seize to our own limits of Louisiana as of right, and the residue of the Floridas as reprisals for spoliations. It is our duty to have an eye to this in rendezvousing and stationing our new recruits and our armed vessels, so as to be ready, if Congress authorizes it, to strike in a moment."
The victories at Bailen and Vimieiro, the flight of Joseph from Madrid, the outburst of English enthusiasm for Spain, and the loud echo from New England, in the anxieties of a general election, brought the President to wider views. October 22 the Cabinet debated the subject, arriving at a new result, which Jefferson recorded in his memoranda:—
- "Unanimously agreed in the sentiments which should be unauthoritatively expressed by our agents to influential persons in Cuba and Mexico; to wit: 'If you remain under the dominion of the kingdom and family of Spain, we are contented; but we should be extremely unwilling to see you pass under the dominion or ascendency of France or England. In the latter case, should you choose to declare independence, we cannot now commit ourselves by saying we would make common cause with you, but must reserve ourselves to act according to the then existing circumstances; but in our proceedings we shall be influenced by friendship to you, by a firm feeling that our interests are intimately connected, and by the strongest repugnance to see you under subordination to either France or England, either politically or commercially.'"
No allusion to Florida was made in this outline of a new policy, and none was needed, for Florida would obviously fall to the United States. The Spanish patriots,—who were as little disposed as Don Carlos IV. and the Prince of Peace to see their empire dismembered, and who knew as well as Godoy and Cevallos the motives that controlled the United States government,—listened with only moderate confidence to the protests which Jefferson, through various agents, made at Havana, Mexico, and New Orleans.
- "The truth is that the patriots of Spain have no warmer friends than the Administration of the United States," began the President's instructions to his agents; "but it is our duty to say nothing and to do nothing for or against either. If they succeed, we shall be well satisfied to see Cuba and Mexico remain in their present dependence, but very unwilling to see them in that of France or England, politically or commercially. We consider their interests and ours as the same, and that the object of both must be to exclude all European influence from this hemisphere."
The patriotic junta at Cadiz, which represented the empire of Spain, could hardly believe in the warm friendship which admitted its object of excluding them from influence over their own colonies. In private, Jefferson avowed that American interests rather required the failure of the Spanish insurrection. "Bonaparte, having Spain at his feet, will look immediately to the Spanish colonies, and think our neutrality cheaply purchased by a repeal of the illegal parts of his decrees, with perhaps the Floridas thrown into the bargain." In truth, Jefferson and the Southern interest cared nothing for Spanish patriotism; and their indifference was reflected in their press. The independence of the Spanish colonies was the chief object of American policy; and the patriots of Spain had no warmer friends than the Administration of the United States so far as they helped and hurried this great catastrophe; but beyond this purpose Jefferson did not look.
In the Eastern States the Democratic and Southern indifference toward the terrible struggle raging in Spain helped to stimulate the anger against Jefferson, which had already swept many firm Republicans into sympathy with Federalism. In their minds indifference to Spain meant submission to Napoleon and hatred of England; it proved the true motives which had induced the President to suppress Monroe's treaty and to impose the Non-importation Act and the embargo; it called for vehement, universal, decisive protest. The New England conscience, which had never submitted to the authority of Jefferson, rose with an outburst of fervor toward the Spaniards, and clung more energetically than ever to the cause of England,—which seemed at last, beyond the possibility of doubt, to have the sanction of freedom. Every day made Jefferson's position less defensible, and shook the confidence of his friends.
With the sanguine temper which had made him victorious in so many trials, the President hoped for another success. He still thought that England must yield under the grinding deprivations of the embargo, and he was firm in the intention to exact his own terms of repeal. Pinkney's earlier despatches offered a vague hope that Canning might withdraw the orders; and at this glimpse of sunshine Jefferson's spirits became buoyant.
- "If they repeal their orders, we must repeal our embargo; if they make satisfaction for the 'Chesapeake,' we must revoke our proclamation, and generalize its application by a law; if they keep up impressments, we must adhere to non-intercourse, manufactures, and a Navigation Act."
Canning was not altogether wrong in thinking that concession by Great Britain would serve only to establish on a permanent footing the system of peaceable coercion.
The first blow to the President's confidence came from France. Armstrong's letters gave no hope that Napoleon would withdraw or even modify his decrees.
- "We must therefore look to England alone," wrote Madison September 14, "for the chances of disembarrassment,—and look with the greater solicitude as it seems probable that nothing but some striking proof of the success of the embargo can arrest the successful perversion of it by its enemies, or rather the enemies of their country."
To England, accordingly, the President looked for some sign of successful coercion,—some proof that the embargo had been felt, or at least some encouragement to hold that its continuance might save him from the impending alternative of submission or war; and he had not long to wait. The "Hope," bringing Canning's letters of September 23, made so quick a voyage that Pinkney's despatches came to hand October 28, as the President was preparing his Annual Message to Congress for its special meeting November 7.
Had Canning chosen the moment when his defiance should have most effect, he would certainly have selected the instant when the elections showed that Jefferson's authority had reached its limit. Friends and enemies alike united in telling the President that his theory of statesmanship had failed, and must be thrown aside. The rapid decline of his authority was measured by the private language of representative men, speaking opinions not meant for popular effect. In the whole Union no men could be found more distinctly representative than Wilson Gary Nicholas, James Monroe, John Marshall, and Rufus King. Of these, Nicholas was distinguished as being the President's warm and sympathetic friend, whose opinions had more weight, and whose relations with him were more confidential, than those of any other person not in the Cabinet; but even Nicholas thought himself required to prepare the President's mind for abandoning his favorite policy.
- "If the embargo could be executed," wrote Nicholas October 20, "and the people would submit to it, I have no doubt it is our wisest course; but if the complete execution of it and the support of the people cannot be counted upon, it will neither answer our purpose nor will it be practicable to retain it. Upon both these points I have the strongest doubts. . . . What the alternative ought to be, I cannot satisfy myself. I see such difficulties at every turn that I am disposed to cling to the embargo as long as there is anything to hope from it; and I am unwilling to form an opinion until I have the aid of friends upon whom I rely, and who are more in the way of information."
This admission of helplessness coming from the oldest Virginian Republicans betrayed the discouragement of all Jefferson's truest friends, and accorded with the language of Monroe, who whatever might be his personal jealousies was still Republican in spirit. After his return from England, at the moment when his attitude toward the Administration was most threatening, both Jefferson and Madison had made efforts, not without success, to soothe Monroe's irritation; and in the month of February Jefferson had even written to him a letter of friendly remonstrance, to which Monroe replied, admitting that he had been "deeply affected" by his recall, and had freely expressed his feelings. The correspondence, though long and not unfriendly, failed to prevent Monroe from appearing as a rival candidate for the Presidency. One of his warmest supporters was Joseph H. Nicholson, to whom he wrote, September 24, a letter which in a different tone from that of Wilson Gary Nicholas betrayed the same helplessness of counsel:—
- "We seem now to be approaching a great crisis. Such is the state of our affairs, and such the compromitment of the Administration at home and abroad by its measures, that it seems likely that it will experience great difficulty in extricating itself. . . . We are invited with great earnestness to give the incumbents all the support we can,—by which is meant to give them our votes at the approaching election; but it is not certain that we could give effectual support to the person in whose favor it is requested, or that it would be advisable in any view to yield it. While we remain on independent ground, and give support where we think it is due, we preserve a resource in favor of free government within the limit of the Republican party. Compromit ourselves in the sense proposed, and that resource is gone. After what has passed, it has no right to suppose that we will, by a voluntary sacrifice, consent to bury ourselves in the same tomb with it."
If Wilson Gary Nicholas and James Monroe stood in such attitudes toward the Administration, admitting or proclaiming that its policy had failed, and that it could command no further confidence, what could be expected from the Federalists, who for eight years had foretold the failure? New England rang with cries for disunion. The Federalist leaders thought best to disavow treasonable intentions; but they fell with their old bitterness on the personal character of President Jefferson, and trampled it deep in the mire. Many of the ablest and most liberal Federalist leaders had lagged behind or left the party, but the zealots of Pickering's class were stronger than ever. Pickering bent his energies to the task of proving that Jefferson was a tool of Napoleon, and that the embargo was laid in consequence of Napoleon's command. The success of this political delusion, both in England and America, was astounding. Even a mind so vigorous and a judgment so calm as that of Chief-Justice Marshall bent under this popular imposture.
- "Nothing can be more completely demonstrated," he wrote to Pickering, "than the inefficacy of the embargo; yet that demonstration seems to be of no avail. I fear most seriously that the same spirit which so tenaciously maintains this measure will impel us to a war with the only power which protects any part of the civilized world from the despotism of that tyrant with whom we shall then be arranged. You have shown that the principle commonly called the Rule of 1756 is of much earlier date, and I fear have also shown to what influences the embargo is to be traced."
Chief-Justice Marshall had read Canning's insulting note of September 23 more than a month before this letter to Pickering was written; yet the idea of resenting it seemed not to enter his mind. Napoleon alone was the terror of Federalism; and this unreasoning fear exercised upon Marshall's calm judgment hardly less power than upon the imagination of Fisher Ames or the austerity of Timothy Pickering. Second only to Marshall, Rufus King was the foremost of Federalists; and the same horror of France which blinded Marshall, Ames, and Pickering to the conduct of England led King to hold the President responsible for Napoleon's violence. December 1, 1808, King wrote to Pickering a long letter containing views which in result differed little from those of Nicholas and Monroe. The Berlin Decree, he said, had violated treaty rights:
- "How dare then our Government with this document before them, to affirm and endeavor to impose upon the country so gross a misstatement as they have done in reference to this French Decree? The Berlin Decree, being an infringement of our rights, should have been resisted, as a similar decree of the Directory was resisted by the Federalists in 1798. Had we so done, there would have been no Orders in Council, no embargo, and probably before this we should have been again in peace with France. . . . We are now told that the embargo must be continued or the country disgraced. Admitting the alternative, how shameful is it—how criminal rather, might I say—that the men who have brought the country to this condition should have the effrontery to make this declaration! The Administration will be disgraced by the repeal, and they deserve to be; perhaps they merit more than disgrace. But will the continuance of the embargo save the country from disgrace? As to its effect on France and England, we have sufficient evidence of its inefficacy. The longer it is continued, the deeper our disgrace when it is raised. It is earnestly to be hoped that the Federalists will leave to the Administration and its supporters all projects by way of substitute to the embargo. Having plunged the nation into its present embarrassment, let them bear the whole responsibility for their measures. The embargo must be repealed. That simple, unqualified measure must be adopted. It is high time to discard visionary experiments. For God's sake, let the Federalists abstain from any share in them!"
King was not only the ablest of the Northern Federalists, he was also the one who knew England best; and yet even he condescended to the excuse or palliation of England's conduct, as though Jefferson could have resisted the Berlin Decree without also resisting the previous robberies, impressments, and blockades of Great Britain. So deeply diseased was American opinion that patriotism vanished, and the best men in the Union took active part with Lord Castlereagh and George Canning in lowering and degrading their own government. Not even Rufus King could see the selfishness of that Tory reaction which, without regard to Napoleon's decrees, swept Great Britain into collision with the United States, and from which no act of Jefferson could have saved American interests. Though King were admitted to be right in thinking that the system of peaceable coercion, the "visionary experiments" of President Jefferson's statesmanship, the fretfulness of Madison's diplomacy, had invited or challenged insult, yet after these experiments had evidently failed and the failure was conceded, a modest share of patriotism might consent that some policy for the future should be indicated, and that some remnant of national dignity should be saved. No such sentimental weakness showed itself in the ranks of Federalism. Jefferson's friends and enemies alike foresaw that the embargo must be repealed; but neither friend nor enemy could or would suggest a remedy for national disgrace.
No record remains to show in what temper Jefferson received the letters of Canning and the warnings of Wilson Cary Nicholas. Had he in the course of his sorely tried political life ever given way to unrestrained violence of temper, he might fairly have flamed into passion on reading Canning's notes; but he seemed rather to deprecate them,—he made even an effort to persuade Canning that his innuendoes were unjust. A long memorandum in his own handwriting recorded an interview which took place November 9 between him and Erskine, the British minister.
- "I told him I was going out of the Administration, and therefore might say to him things which I would not do were I to remain in. I wished to correct an error which I at first thought his Government above being led into from newspapers; but I apprehended they had adopted it. This was the supposed partiality of the Administration, and particularly myself, in favor of France and against England. I observed that when I came into the Administration there was nothing I so much desired as to be on a footing of intimate friendship with England; that I knew as long as she was our friend no enemy could hurt; that I would have sacrificed much to have effected it, and therefore wished Mr. King to have continued there as a favorable instrument; that if there had been an equal disposition on their part, I thought it might have been effected; for although the question of impressments was difficult on their side, and insuperable with us, yet had that been the sole question we might have shoved along in the hope of some compromise; . . . that he might judge from the communications now before Congress whether there had been any partiality to France, to whom he would see we had never made the proposition to revoke the embargo immediately, which we did to England; and, again, that we had remonstrated strongly to them on the style of M. Champagny's letter, but had not to England on that of Canning, equally offensive; that the letter of Canning now reading to Congress, was written in the high ropes, and would be stinging to every American breast. . . . I told him in the course of the conversation that this country would never return to an intercourse with England while those Orders in Council were in force. In some part of it also I told him that Mr. Madison (who, it was now pretty well understood, would be my successor, to which he assented) had entertained the same cordial wishes as myself to be on a friendly footing with England."
Erskine reported this conversation to his Government; and his report was worth comparing with that of Jefferson:—
- "I collected from the general turn of his sentiments that he would prefer the alternative of embargo for a certain time, until the Congress should be enabled to come to some decided resolution as to the steps to be pursued. By this observation I believe he meant that he would wish to wait until March next, when the new Congress would be assembled, and the general sense of the people of the United States might be taken upon the state of their affairs. . . . He took an opportunity of observing in the course of his conversation that his Administration had been most wrongfully accused of partiality toward France; that for his own part he felt no scruple, as he was about to retire, to declare that he had been always highly desirous of an intimate connection with Great Britain; and that if any temporary arrangement on the subject of impressment could have been made, although he never would have consented to abandon the principle of immunity from impressment for the citizens of the United States, yet that the two countries might have shoved along (was his familiar expression) very well until some definite settlement could have taken place. He remarked also that these were, he knew, the sentiments of Mr. Madison, who would in all probability succeed him in his office. He hinted also that both had been long jealous of the ambitious views and tyrannical conduct of Bonaparte."
"These declarations," continued Erskine, "are so opposite to the general opinion of what their real sentiments have been that it is very difficult to reconcile them." In truth, the footing of intimate friendship with England so much desired by Jefferson demanded from England more concessions than she was yet ready to yield; but nothing could be truer or more characteristic than the President's remark that under his charge the two countries might have "shoved along very well," had peace depended only upon him. In this phrase lay both the defence and the criticism of his statesmanship.
In any event, nothing could be more certain than that the time for shoving along at all was past. The country had come to a stand-still; and some heroic resolution must be taken. The question pressing for an answer concerned Jefferson more directly than it concerned any one else. What did he mean to do? For eight years, in regard to foreign relations his will had been law. Except when the Senate, in 1806, with disastrous results, obliged him to send William Pinkney to negotiate a treaty with England, Congress had never crossed the President's foreign policy by wilful interference; and when this policy ended in admitted failure, his dignity and duty required him to stand by the government, and to take the responsibility that belonged to him. Yet the impression which Erskine drew from his words was correct. He had no other plan than to postpone further action until after March 4, 1809, when he should retire from control. With singular frankness he avowed this wish. After the meeting of Congress, November 7, when doubt and confusion required control, Jefferson drew himself aside, repeating without a pause the formula that embargo was the alternative to war. "As yet the first seems most to prevail," he wrote, a few days after his interview with Erskine; and no one doubted to which side he leaned, though as if it were a matter of course that he should quit the government before his successor was even elected, he added: "On this occasion I think it is fair to leave to those who are to act on them the decisions they prefer, being to be myself but a spectator. I should not feel justified in directing measures which those who are to execute them would disapprove. Our situation is truly difficult. We have been pressed by the belligerents to the very wall, and all further retreat is impracticable."
Madison and Gallatin did not share Jefferson's notion of Executive duties, and they made an effort to bring the President back to a juster sense of what was due to himself and to the nation. November 15 Gallatin wrote a friendly letter to Jefferson, urging him to resume his functions.
- "Both Mr. Madison and myself," wrote Gallatin, "concur in the opinion that considering the temper of the Legislature it would be eligible to point out to them some precise and distinct course. As to what that should be we may not all perfectly agree, and perhaps the knowledge of the various feelings of the members, and of the apparent public opinion, may on consideration induce a revision of our own. I feel myself nearly as undetermined between enforcing the embargo or war as I was at our last meeting. But I think that we must, or rather you must, decide the question absolutely, so that we may point out a decisive course either way to our friends. Mr. Madison, being unwell, proposed that I should call on you, and suggest our wish that we might, with the other gentlemen, be called by you on that subject. Should you think that course proper, the sooner the better." Jefferson's reply to this request was not recorded, but he persisted in considering himself as no longer responsible for the government. Although Madison could not become even President-elect before the first Wednesday in December, when the electors were to give their votes; and although the official declaration of this vote could not take place before the second Wednesday in February,—Jefferson insisted that his functions were merely formal from the moment when the name of his probable successor was known.
- "I have thought it right," he wrote December 27, "to take no part myself in proposing measures the execution of which will devolve on my successor. I am therefore chiefly an unmeddling listener to what others say. On the same ground, I shall make no new appointments which can be deferred till the fourth of March, thinking it fair to leave to my successor to select the agents for his own Administration. As the moment of my retirement approaches I become more anxious for its arrival, and to begin at length to pass what yet remains to me of life and health in the bosom of my family and neighbors, and in communication with my friends undisturbed by political concerns or passions."
So freely did he express this longing for escape that his enemies exulted in it as a fresh proof of their triumph. Josiah Quincy, his fear of the President vanishing into contempt,—"a dish of skim-milk curdling at the head of our nation,"—writing to the man whom eight years before Jefferson had driven from the White House, gave an account of the situation differing only in temper from Jefferson's description of himself:—
- "Fear of responsibility and love of popularity are now master-passions, and regulate all the movements. The policy is to keep things as they are, and wait for European events. It is hoped the chapter of accidents may present something favorable within the remaining three months; and if it does not, no great convulsion can happen during that period. The Presidential term will have expired, and then—away to Monticello, and let the Devil take the hindmost. I do believe that not a whit deeper project than this fills the august mind of your successor."
Had Jefferson strictly carried out his doctrine, and abstained from interference of any kind in the decision of a future policy, the confusion in Congress might have been less than it was, and the chance of agreement might have been greater; but while apparently refusing to interfere, in effect he exerted his influence to prevent change; and to prevent a change of measures was to maintain the embargo. In insisting that the whole matter should be left to the next Congress and President, Jefferson resisted the popular pressure for repeal, embarrassing his successor, distracting the Legislature, and destroying the remnants of his own popularity. Especially the Eastern Democrats, who had reason to believe that in New England the Union depended on repeal, were exasperated to find Jefferson, though declaring neutrality, yet privately exerting his influence to postpone action until the meeting of another Congress. Among the Eastern members was Joseph Story, who had been elected to succeed Crowninshield, as a Republican, to represent Salem and Marblehead. Story took his seat Dec. 20, 1808, and instantly found himself in opposition to President Jefferson and the embargo:—
- "I found that as a measure of retaliation the system had not only failed, but that Mr. Jefferson, from pride of opinion as well as from that visionary course of speculation which often misled his judgment, was absolutely bent upon maintaining it at all hazards. He professed a firm belief that Great Britain would abandon her Orders in Council if we persisted in the embargo; and having no other scheme to offer in case of the failure of this, he maintained in private conversation the indispensable necessity of closing the session of Congress without any attempt to limit the duration of the system."
Josiah Quincy and Joseph Story were comparatively friendly in their views of Jefferson's conduct. The extreme Federalist opinion, represented by Timothy Pickering, placed the President in a light far more repulsive.
- "It is scarcely conceivable," wrote Pickering to Christopher Gore Jan. 8, 1809, "that Mr. Jefferson should so obstinately persevere in the odious measure of the embargo, which he cannot but see has impaired his popularity and hazards its destruction, if he were not under secret engagements to the French Emperor,—unless you can suppose that he would run that hazard and the ruin of his country, rather than that a measure which he explicitly recommended should be pronounced unwise. . . . When we advert to the real character of Mr. Jefferson, there is no nefarious act of which we may not suppose him capable. He would rather the United States should sink, than change the present system of measures. This is not opinion, but history. I repeat it confidentially to you until I obtain permission to vouch it on evidence which I trust I can obtain."
Pickering's hatred of Jefferson amounted to mania; but his language showed the influence which, whether intentionally or not, the President still exerted on the decisions of Congress. All accounts agreed that while refusing to act officially, the President resisted every attempt to change, during his time, the policy he had established. Canning's defiance and Napoleon's discipline reduced him to silence and helplessness; but even when prostrate and alone, he clung to the remnant of his system. Disaster upon disaster, mortification upon mortification, crowded fast upon the man whose triumphs had been so brilliant, but whose last hope was to escape a public censure more humiliating than any yet inflicted on a President of the United States. The interest attached to the history of his administration—an interest at all times singularly personal—centred at last upon the single point of his personality, all eyes fixing themselves upon the desperate malice with which his ancient enemies strove to drive him from his cover, and the painful efforts with which he still sought to escape their fangs.
- Jefferson to Robert Smith, Aug. 9, 1808; Writings, v. 335.
- Jefferson to Dearborn, Aug. 12, 1808; Writings, v. 338. Jefferson to Gallatin, v. 338. Jefferson to R. Smith, v. 337. Jefferson to Madison, v. 339.
- Cabinet Memoranda; Writings (Ford), i. 334.
- Jefferson to Claiborne, Oct. 29, 1808; Writings, v. 381.
- Jefferson to Monroe, Jan. 28, 1809; Writings, v. 419.
- Jefferson to Madison, Sept. 6, 1808; Writings, v. 361.
- Madison to Jefferson, Sept. 14, 1808; Jefferson MSS.
- W. C. Nicholas to Jefferson, Oct. 20, 1808; Jefferson MSS.
- Monroe to Joseph H. Nicholson, Sept. 24, 1808; Nicholson MSS.
- George Cabot to Pickering, Oct. 5, 1808; Lodge's Cabot, p. 308.
- Marshall to Pickering, Dec. 19, 1808; Lodge's Cabot, p. 489.
- Rufus King to Pickering, Dec. 1, 1808; Pickering MSS.
- Cabinet Memoranda; Writings (Ford), i. 336.
- Erskine to Canning, Nov. 10, 1808; MSS. British Archives.
- Jefferson to Governor Pinckney, Nov. 8, 1808; Writings, v. 383.
- Jefferson to Governor Lincoln, Nov. 13, 1808; Writings, v. 387.
- Gallatin to Jefferson, Nov. 15, 1808; Gallatin's Writings, i. 420.
- Jefferson to Dr Logan, Dec. 27, 1808; Writings, v. 404.
- Josiah Quincy to John Adams, Dec. 15, 1808; Quincy's Life of J. Quincy, p. 146.
- Story's Life of Story, i. 184.
- Pickering to C. Gore, Jan. 8, 1809; Pickering MSS.
- Cf. Pickering to S. P. Gardner; New England Federalism, p. 379.