Life of Henry Clay/05 The War of 1812
THE WAR OF 1812.
Upon the expiration of his term in the Senate, Henry Clay was elected a member of the national House of Representatives for the Lexington district, and took his seat on November 4, 1811. To him this was a welcome change. He "preferred the turbulence of the House to the solemn stillness of the Senate." Naturally it was a more congenial theatre of action to the fiery young statesman. The House was then much less under the domination of its committees than it is at present. It was not yet muzzled by rules permitting only now and then a free exchange of opinions. It still possessed the character of a debating body in the best sense of the phrase. The House of Representatives then was what the Senate afterwards became, — the platform to which the people looked for the most thorough discussion of their interests, and from which a statesman could most effectively impress his views upon the public mind. Moreover, it was in the House that the Young America of the time gathered in force to make their strength and spirit tell — the young Republicans who had grown somewhat impatient at the timidity and the over-anxious considerations of economy and peace with which the old statesmen of their own party, in their opinion, constantly hampered the national ambition and energy. Of all political elements this was to Clay the most congenial; he was its natural leader, and no sooner had he appeared in the House than he was elected Speaker by a very large majority. It was well understood that the duties of this position would not exclude him from participation in debate. On almost every occasion of importance he availed himself of the committee of the whole to proclaim his opinions, and for this the stirring events of the time furnished ample opportunity. It may be said without exaggeration that it was his leadership in the House which hastened the War of 1812.
Of the events which figured as the immediate cause of that war only a short summary can find room here. The profitable maritime trade which the great struggle between France and England had, from its beginning, thrown into the hands of American merchants, could be preserved only so long as the United States remained neutral and as their neutral rights were respected. President Jefferson earnestly endeavored to remain at peace with both belligerents, hoping that each would be anxious to propitiate, or at least not to offend this Republic, from fear of driving it into an active alliance with the other. In this he was disappointed. They both looked upon the United States as a weak neutral, whose interests could be injured, and whose feelings could be outraged, with impunity.
England and France sought to destroy one another not only by arms, but by commercial restrictions. In 1804 Great Britain declared the French coast from Ostend to the Seine in a state of blockade. In 1806 the blockade was extended from the Elbe to Brest. It thus became in part a mere "paper blockade." Napoleon answered by the Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806, establishing the "continental system," designed to stop all trade between Great Britain and the European continent. Thereupon came from the British side the "Orders in Council" of January 7 and November 11, 1807, declaring the blockade of all places and ports belonging to France and her allies, from which the British flag was excluded, also all their colonies; prohibiting all trade in the produce or manufactures of those countries and colonies, and making subject to capture and condemnation all vessels trading with and from them, and all merchandise on board such vessels. The return shot on the part of Napoleon was the Milan Decree of December 17, 1807, declaring that every ship, of what ever nation, and whatever the nature of its cargo, sailing from the ports of England or her colonies, or of countries occupied by English troops, and every ship which had made any voyage to England, or paid any tax to that government, or submitted to search by an English ship, should be lawful prize.
Between these decrees and counter-decrees, which were utterly unwarranted by international law, the trade of neutrals was crushed as between two millstones. Indeed, these measures were purposely directed by the two great belligerents as much against neutral trade as against one another. Great Britain would not let her maritime commerce slip out of her grasp to build up a commercial rival sailing under a neutral flag. She would therefore permit no trading at all except on condition that it should go through her hands, or "through British ports where a transit duty was levied for the British treasury." Napoleon, on the other hand, desired to constrain the neutrals, especially the United States, to become his active allies, by forcing upon them the alternative: either allies or enemies. There must be no neutrals, or if there were, they must have no rights. Thus American ships were taken and condemned by both parties in great numbers, and American maritime trade was suffering terribly. But this was not all. British men-of-war stopped American vessels on the high seas, and even in American waters, to search them for British subjects or for men they chose to consider as such, whom they pressed into the British naval service. A large number of these were Americans, not a few of whom refused to serve under the British flag, and horrible stories were told of the dungeons into which they were thrown, and of the cruelties they had to suffer.
The steps taken by the United States to protect their neutral rights were those of a peace-loving power not over-confident of its own strength. Madison, President Jefferson's Secretary of State, made an appeal to the sense of right and fairness of the British government. That innocent effort having proved fruitless, commercial restrictions were resorted to, — first, the non-importation Act of 1806, prohibiting the importation of certain articles of British production. At the same time negotiation was tried, and a treaty was actually agreed upon by the American envoys, Monroe and Pinkney, and the British government; but as it contained no abandonment by Great Britain of the right of search for the purpose of impressment, President Jefferson did not submit it to the Senate. An attempt at further negotiation failed. In June, 1807, the British man-of-war Leopard fired into the United States frigate Chesapeake, and overhauled her for British deserters, some of whom claimed to be American citizens, an outrage which created intense excitement and indignation all over the country. An explanation was demanded, which it took four years to obtain. In the autumn of 1807, Jefferson called an extra session of Congress, and the famous embargo was resolved upon, forbidding the departure, unless by special direction of the President, of any American vessel from any port of the United States bound to any foreign country, — a very curious measure, intended to defend the foreign commerce of the country by killing that commerce at one blow. The effect was not, as had been hoped, to compel the belligerents by commercial inconvenience at once to respect the rights of neutrals; but on the other hand great dissatisfaction was created in the shipping towns of the United States; for most of the ship-owners and merchants would rather take what little chance of trade the restrictive measures of the belligerents still left them, than let their ships rot at the wharves and thus accept financial ruin from the hands of their own government.
The embargo would indeed have been proper enough as a measure preparatory for immediate war. But Jefferson was a man of peace by temperament as well as philosophy. His favorite gun-boat policy appears like mere boyish dabbling in warlike contrivance. His nature shrank from the conflict of material forces. The very thought of war, with its brutal exigencies and sudden vicissitudes, distressed and bewildered his mind. His whole political philosophy contemplated lasting peace with the outside world. War, as a reign of force, was utterly hostile to the realization of his political ideals. When he saw that the comfortable repose and the general cheerfulness which prevailed during his first term were overclouded by foreign complications, and that the things he feared most were almost sure to come, he greeted the election of his successor, which took place in 1808, as a deliverance; and without waiting for Madison's inauguration, virtually dropped the reins of government, leaving all further responsibility to Congress and to the next President.
In February, 1809, Congress resolved to raise the embargo, and to substitute for it commercial non-intercourse with England and France until the obnoxious orders and decrees should be withdrawn. A gleam of sunshine seemed to break through the clouds when, in April, a provisional arrangement, looking to the withdrawal of the Orders in Council in case of the reopening of commercial intercourse, and to an atonement for the Chesapeake outrage, was agreed upon by the Secretary of State and Mr. Erskine, the British Minister. President Madison at once issued a proclamation declaring commercial intercourse with Great Britain restored. But the ships had hardly left their harbors, when the general rejoicing was rudely interrupted. It turned out that Erskine, a well-meaning and somewhat enthusiastic young man, had gone beyond his instructions. He was sternly disavowed and recalled by the British government. A new Minister, Mr. Jackson, was sent in his place, who, in discussing the transactions between Erskine and the Secretary of State, made himself so offensive that further communication with him was declined. The situation was darker than ever. Non-intercourse with Great Britain was resumed; but a partial change of ministry in England — the Marquis of Wellesley succeeding Mr. Canning in the Foreign Office — seemed to open a new chance for negotiation. To aid this, Congress on May 1, 1810, passed an act providing that commercial non-intercourse with the belligerent powers should cease with the end of the session, only armed ships being excluded from American ports; and further, that, in case either of them should recall its obnoxious orders or decrees, the President should announce the fact by proclamation, and if the other did not do the same within three months, the non-intercourse act should be revived against that one, — a measure adopted only because Congress, in its helplessness, did not know what else to do.
The conduct of France had meanwhile been no less offensive than that of Great Britain. On all sorts of pretexts American ships were seized in the harbors and waters controlled by French power. A spirited remonstrance on the part of Armstrong, the American Minister, was answered by the issue of the Rambouillet Decree in May, 1810, ordering the sale of American vessels and cargoes seized, and directing like confiscation of all American vessels entering any ports under the control of France. This decree was designed to stop the surreptitious trade that was still being carried on between England and the continent in American bottoms. When it failed in accomplishing that end, Napoleon instructed his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Champagny, to inform the American Minister that the Berlin and Milan Decrees were revoked, and would cease to have effect on November 1, 1810, if the English would revoke their Orders in Council, and recall their new principles of blockade, or if the United States would "cause their rights to be respected by the English," — in the first place restore the non-intercourse act as to Great Britain. This declaration was made by Champagny to the American representative on August 5. The British government, being notified of this by the American Minister, declared on September 29, that Great Britain would recall the Orders in Council when the revocation of the French decrees should have actually taken effect, and the commerce of neutrals should have been restored. Thus France would effectually withdraw her decrees when Great Britain had withdrawn her Orders in Council; and Great Britain would withdraw her Orders in Council when France had effectually withdrawn her decrees.
Madison, however, leaning toward France, as was traditional with the Republican party, and glad to grasp even at the semblance of an advantage, chose to regard the withdrawal of the Berlin and Milan Decrees as actual and done in good faith, and announced it as a matter of fact on November 1, 1810. French armed ships were no longer excluded from American ports. On February 2, 1811, the non-importation act was revived as to Great Britain. In May the British Court of Admiralty delivered an opinion that no evidence existed of the withdrawal of the Berlin and Milan Decrees, which resulted in the condemnation of a number of American vessels and their cargoes. Additional irritation was caused by the capture, off Sandy Hook, of an American vessel bound to France, by some fresh cases of search and impressment, and by an encounter between the American frigate President and the British sloop Little Belt, which fired into one another, the British vessel suffering most.
But was American commerce safe in French ports? By no means. The French Council of Prize had continued to condemn American vessels, as if the Berlin and Milan Decrees were in undiminished force; outrages on American ships by French men-of-war and privateers went on as before, and Napoleon refused reparation for the confiscations under the Rambouillet Decree. The pretended French concession was, therefore, a mere farce.
Truly, there were American grievances enough. Over nine hundred American ships had been seized by the British, and more than five hundred and fifty by the French. The number of American citizens impressed as British seamen, or kept in prison if they refused to serve, was reported to exceed six thousand, and it was estimated that there were as many more of whom no information had been obtained. The remonstrances of the American government had been treated with haughty disdain. By both belligerents the United States had been kicked and cuffed like a mere interloper among the nations of the earth, who had no rights entitled to respectful consideration. Their insolence seemed to have been increased by the irresolution of the American government, the distraction of counsel in Congress, and the division of sentiment among the people, resulting in a shifting, aimless policy, which made the attitude of the Republic appear weak, if not cowardly, in the eyes of the European powers.
Such was the situation of affairs when Henry Clay entered the House of Representatives and was made its Speaker. In his annual message Madison held fast to the fiction that France had withdrawn the offensive decrees, while at the same time he complained that the French government had not shown any intention to make reparation for the injuries inflicted, and he hinted at a revival of non-intercourse. But the sting of the message was directed against Great Britain, who had refused to withdraw the Orders in council, and continued to do things "not less derogatory to the dearest of our national rights than vexatious to our trade," virtually amounting to "war on our lawful commerce." Madison therefore advised that the United States be put "into an armor and attitude demanded by the crisis, and corresponding with the national spirit and expectations." This had a warlike sound, while, in fact, Madison was an exceedingly unwarlike man. He ardently wished, and still hoped to prevent, an armed conflict. To make him adopt a war policy required pushing.
But the young Republican leaders came to the front to interpret the "national spirit and expectation." They totally eclipsed the old chiefs by their dash and brilliancy. Foremost among them stood Henry Clay; then John C. Calhoun, William Lowndes, Felix Grundy, Langdon Cheves, and others. They believed that, if the American Republic was to maintain anything like the dignity of an independent power, and to preserve, or rather regain, the respect of mankind in any degree, — ay, its self-respect, — it must cease to submit to humiliation and contemptuous treatment; it must fight, — fight somebody who had wronged or insulted it.
The Republicans, having always a tender side for France, and the fiction of French concessions being accepted, the theory of the war party was that, of the two belligerents, England had more insolently maltreated the United States. Rumors were spread that an Indian war then going on, and resulting in the battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811, was owing to English intrigues. Adding this to the old Revolutionary reminiscences of British oppression, it was not unnatural that the national wrath should generally turn against Great Britain.
Madison was all his life, even in his youth, somewhat like a timid old man. He did not desire war; neither did he venture to resist the warlike current. He was quite willing to have Congress make a policy for him, and to follow its lead. In this respect he could not have found a man more willing to urge, or drive, or lead him, than Henry Clay, who at once so composed the important committees of the House as to put them under the control of the war party. Then early in the session he took the floor in favor of putting at the disposal of the President a much larger army than the President himself had recommended. Every word of his speech breathed war. He spoke of war not as an uncertain event, but as something sure to come. As to the reason for it, he pointed out that "the real cause of British aggression was not to distress an enemy, but to destroy a rival." To that end, "not content with seizing upon all our property which falls within her rapacious grasp, the personal rights of our countrymen — rights which forever must be sacred — are trampled upon and violated" through the "impressment of our seamen." Was the question asked: "What are we to gain by war?" With ringing emphasis he replied: "What are we not to lose by peace? Commerce, character, a nation's best treasure, honor!" With such words of fire he stirred the House and the people. The character and result of the war, too, were predetermined in his imagination. It was to be an aggressive war, a war of glorious conquest. He saw the battalions of the Republic marching victoriously through Canada and laying siege to doomed Quebec. His dream was of a peace dictated at Halifax.
Not only the regular army was increased, but the President was authorized to accept and employ 50,000 volunteers. Then a bill was introduced providing for the building of ten new frigates, which gave Clay an opportunity for expressing his views as to what the American navy should be. A large portion of the war party, Western and Southern men, insisted upon confining the conflict with England to operations on land. The navy was not popular with them. They denounced navies generally as curses to the countries which possessed them; as very dangerous to popular liberty; as sources of endless expense without corresponding benefit; as nurseries of debt, corruption, demoralization, and ruin. Especially in the war then in prospect a navy would be absolutely useless, — a curious prediction in the light of subsequent events. Cheves and Lowndes spoke with ability in favor of a maritime armament, but Clay's speech took a wider sweep. He easily disposed of the assertion that a navy was as dangerous to free institutions as a standing army, and then laid down his theory upon which the naval force of the United States should be organized. It should not be such "a force as would be capable of contending with that which any other nation is able to bring on the ocean, — a force that, boldly scouring every sea, would challenge to combat the fleets of other powers, however great." To build up so extensive an establishment, he admitted, was impossible at the time, and would probably never be desirable. The next species of naval power, which, "without adventuring into distant seas, and keeping generally on our coasts, would be competent to beat off any squadron which might be attempted to be permanently stationed in our waters," he did deem desirable. Twelve ships of the line and fifteen to twenty frigates, he thought, would be sufficient; and if the present state of the finances forbade so large an outlay, he was at least in favor of beginning the enlargement of the navy with such an end in view. But what he would absolutely insist upon was the building up of a force "competent to punish any single ship or small naval expedition" attempting to "endanger our coasting trade, to block up our harbors, or to lay under contribution our cities," such a force being "entirely within the compass of our means" at the time. "Because we cannot provide against every danger," he asked, "shall we provide against none?"
This was a sensible theory, in its main principles applicable now as well as then: to keep a force not so expensive as to embarrass the country financially, not so large as to tempt the government into unnecessary quarrels, but sufficient for doing such duty of high police as might be necessary to protect our harbors and coasts against casual attack and annoyance, and to "show the flag," and serve as a sign of the national power in foreign parts, where American citizens or American property might occasionally need protection. With great adroitness Clay enlisted also the sympathies of the Western members in behalf of the navy, by showing them the importance of protecting the mouth of the Mississippi, the only outlet for the products of the Western country.
The war spirit in the country gradually rose, and manifested itself noisily in public meetings, passing resolutions, and memorializing Congress. It was increased in intensity by a sensational "exposure," a batch of papers laid before Congress by the President in March, 1812. They had been sold to the government by John Henry, an Irish adventurer, and disclosed a confidential mission to New England, undertaken by Henry in 1809 at the request of Sir James Craig, the Governor of Canada, to encourage a disunion movement in the Eastern States. This was the story. Whatever its foundation, it was believed, and greatly increased popular excitement. Yet the administration seemed to be still halting, and the war party felt obliged to push it forward. Their programme was in the first place a short embargo of thirty days, upon which Clay, as their leader, had a conference with the President. Madison agreed to recommend an embargo of sixty days to Congress, and this he did in a confidential message on April 1. The House passed a corresponding bill the same day; the Senate the next day increased the time of the embargo to ninety days, which the House accepted, and on April 4 the bill became a law. The moderate Republicans and the Federalists had procured the extension of the time, still hoping for a pacific turn of negotiation. But Clay vehemently declared that the embargo meant war and nothing but war. When he was reminded of the danger of such a contest, and of the circumstance that the conduct of France furnished cause of war equally grave, he burst out in thundering appeals to American courage and honor. "Weak as we are," he exclaimed, "we could fight France too, if necessary, in a good cause, — the cause of honor and independence." We had complete proof, he added, "that Great Britain would do everything to destroy us. Resolution and spirit were our only security. War, after all, was not so terrible a thing. There was no terror in it except its novelty. Such gentlemen as chose to call these sentiments Quixotic, he pitied for their deficient sense of honor."
All over the country the embargo was understood as meaning an immediate preparation for war. In the South and the West and in Pennsylvania enthusiastic demonstrations expressed and further excited the popular feeling. It was a remarkable circumstance that the war spirit was strongest where the people were least touched in their immediate interests by the British Orders in Council and the impressment of seamen, while the population engaged in maritime commerce, who had suffered most and who feared a total annihilation of their trade by the war, were in favor of pacific measures, and under the lead of the Federalists violently denounced the measures of the government and the war party.
In May, 1812, President Madison was nominated for reëlection by the congressional caucus. It has been said that he was dragooned into the war policy by Clay and his followers with the threat that, unless he yielded to their views, another candidate for the presidency would be chosen. This Clay denied, and there was no evidence to discredit his denial. Madison was simply swept into the current by the impetuosity of Young America. He himself declared in 1827, in a letter to Wheaton, that "the immediate impulse" to the declaration of war was given by a letter from Lord Castlereagh to the British Minister at Washington, Forster. which was communicated to the President, and which stated "that the Orders in Council, to which we had declared we would not submit, would not be repealed without the repeal of the internal measures of France. With this formal notice no choice remained, but between war and degradation."
John Randolph made a last attempt to prevent the extreme step. Having heard that the President was preparing a message to Congress recommending a declaration of war, he tried to force a discussion in the House by offering a resolution, "that it was inexpedient to resort to war with Great Britain." He began to debate it on the spot. Clay, as Speaker, interrupted him, and put to the House the question whether it would proceed to the consideration of the resolution. The House voted in the negative, and Randolph was silenced. On June 1 the President's war message came. On June 18 a bill in accordance with it, which had passed both Houses, was signed by the President, who proclaimed hostilities the next day.
Thus Young America, led by Henry Clay, carried their point. But there was something disquieting in their victory. The majority they commanded in Congress was not so large as a majority for a declaration of war should be. In the House, Pennsylvania and the states south and west of it gave 62 votes for the war, and 32 against it; the states north and east of Pennsylvania gave 17 yeas and 32 nays, — in all 79 for and 49 against war. This showed a difference of sentiment according to geographical divisions. Not even all the Republicans were in favor of war. Thirteen Northern and two Southern Republicans voted against it. In the Senate the vote stood 19 to 13, and among the latter were six Republicans. So large a minority had an ugly look. It signified that there would be a peace party in the United States during the war. And indeed, those who called themselves the "friends of peace, liberty, and commerce" did make themselves felt in obstructing military preparations and subscriptions to the national loan. In some parts of New England this opposition assumed an almost seditious character.
Nor were the United States in any sense well prepared for a war with a first class power. The Republic was still comparatively weak in military resources. The population, including slaves, had not yet reached eight millions. Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee were the westernmost states. Indiana was still a territory, and part of it in the possession of Indian tribes. The battle of Tippecanoe had been fought the year before on its soil. The regular army had scarcely 10,000 effective men. Volunteer and militia levies had to be mainly depended upon, and to command these the number of experienced officers, aside from superannuated "Revolutionary veterans," was extremely small. The naval force consisted of a few old frigates and some smaller vessels. These were all the means at hand, when war was declared, to force Great Britain, through a rapid conquest of Canada, to respect the maritime rights of the United States.
All this looked unpromising enough. But Clay believed in the power of enthusiasm. His voice resounded through the land. His eloquence filled volunteer regiments and sent them off full of fighting spirit and hope of victory. From place to place he went, reassuring the doubters, arousing the sluggards, encouraging the patriots, — in one word, "firing the national heart." But, after all, his enthusiasm could not beat the enemy. His conquest of Canada turned out to be a much more serious affair than he had anticipated. Active operations began. The first attempt at invasion, made by General Hull on the Western frontier, resulted in the ignominious surrender of that commander, with his whole force, to the British, at Detroit. Other attempts on the Niagara River and on Lake Champlain ended but little less ingloriously. These failures were not only military disasters, but were calculated to bury in ridicule the advocates of the war with their glowing predictions of the taking of Quebec and the peace dictated at Halifax. Only the little navy did honor to the country. The American men-of-war gathered laurels in one encounter after another, to the astonishment of the world. It was a revelation to England as well as to the American people.
Meanwhile the situation was curiously changed by other events. Before the declaration of war was known in Europe, Napoleon tried to increase the excitement of the Americans against England, and to propitiate their feeling with regard to France, by causing to be exhibited to the American Minister a decree pretending to have been signed on April 28, 1810, but really manufactured for the occasion, to the effect that the Berlin and Milan Decrees should, as to the United States, be considered as having been of no force since November 1, 1810. On the other hand, in England the mercantile interest and the manufacturing population had at last become dissatisfied with the prohibition of the American trade. There had been a parliamentary inquiry into the effects of the Orders in Council, and the government, pressed by motions in Parliament for their repeal, had finally yielded and withdrawn the obnoxious measures on June 23, 1812, reserving the right to renew them, should the Americans persist in a policy hostile to British interests. But five days before, unknown to the British government, the United States had declared war. The Orders in Council had no doubt been considered the principal cause for that war. Now Great Britain had shown herself ready to remove that cause. Nothing remained but the complaint about the impressment of American seamen. On that ground the war went on, — with what success at first, we have seen.
It is reported that Madison seriously contemplated making Clay commanding general of the forces in the field, and that Gallatin dissuaded him, saying: "But what shall we do without Clay in Congress?" Indeed, the next session showed how much he was needed there.
When Congress met in the fall of 1812 the general situation was dismal in the extreme. On land there had been nothing but defeat and humiliation. On the sea some splendid achievements, indeed, in duels between ship and ship, but no prospect of success in a struggle between navy and navy. England had not yet begun to put forth her colossal power. What was to happen when she should! With all this, the offered withdrawal of the Orders in Council stood as conclusive proof of the fact that, had the United States only waited a little longer with the declaration of war, the principal cause of complaint might have been peaceably removed. What an opportunity for an able opposition! Madison was indeed reëlected to the presidency in the fall of 1812, by an electoral vote of 128 against 89; but the opposition, especially bitter in New England, had no reason to be discouraged by that proportion.
Bills to increase the navy were swiftly passed, almost without objection, for the Federalists themselves, especially those from the shipping states, desired a more efficient naval force. But on a bill for reinforcing the army the attack came. At first it was tame enough. The bill had already passed by a large majority to a third reading, when Josiah Quincy, of Massachusetts, the leader of the Federalists in the House, made an assault upon the whole war policy, which in brilliancy of diction and bitterness of spirit has hardly ever been excelled in our parliamentary history. He depicted the attempted invasion of Canada as a buccaneering expedition, an act of bloodthirsty cruelty against unoffending neighbors. Its failure was a disgrace, but "the disgrace of failure was terrestrial glory compared with the disgrace of the attempt." If an army were put into the field strong enough to accomplish the conquest of Canada, it would also be strong enough to endanger the liberties of the American people. In view of the criminality of the attempt, he thanked God that the people of New England — referring to their vote against Madison in the preceding national election — "had done what they could to vindicate themselves and their children from the burden of this sin." This was not the way to obtain an early and honorable peace. "Those must be very young politicians," he exclaimed, his eye fixed on the youthful Speaker of the House, — "their pin-feathers not yet grown, and, however they may flutter on this floor, they are not yet fledged for any high or distant flight, who think that threats and appealing to fear are the ways of producing any disposition to negotiate in Great Britain, or in any other nation which understands what it owes to its own safety and honor." The voluntary yielding of England with regard to the Orders in Council had shown how peace might have been secured. But he was convinced that the administration did not want peace. The administration party had its origin and found its daily food in hatred of Great Britain. He reviewed the whole diplomatic history of the United States to show that Republican influence had always been bent upon forcing a quarrel with England, and that during Jefferson's and Madison's administrations there had been constant plotting against peace and friendship. This review he followed with a scathing exposure of the subserviency of the administration to the audacious and insulting duplicity of Bonaparte, and the shameful humiliation of the government in consequence of it. Finally, he declared that, while he would unite with any man for purposes of maritime and frontier defense, he would unite with no one nor with any body of men "for the conquest of any country, either as a means of carrying on this war or for any other purpose."
This savage attack struck deeply. It was followed by several speeches on the same side, insisting that the quarrel between the United States and England had, after the revocation of the Orders in Council, been narrowed down to the impressment question, and that the United States would never have gone to war on that account alone.
Then Clay, the foremost of the young politicians whose "pin-feathers were not yet grown," took up the gauntlet. Quincy and his followers had made a mistake not unusually made under such circumstances. They had overshot the mark. The most serious danger of an opposition in time of war is to expose themselves to the suspicion of a lack of patriotism. This danger they did not avoid.
The report we have of Clay's speech, delivered on January 8 and 9, 1813, although not perfect, is sufficient to stamp this as one of his greatest performances. He did not find it difficult to defend Jefferson and Madison — who, indeed, had toiled enough to maintain peaceable relations with every body — against the charge of having wantonly provoked a war with England. It was, he said, the interest, as well as the duty, of the administration to preserve peace. Nothing was left untried to that end. The defensive measures — non-importation and embargo — adopted to protect our maritime trade, were "sacrificed on the altar of conciliation." Any "indication of a return to the public law and the path of justice on the part of either belligerent was seized upon with avidity by the administration;" so the friendly disposition shown by Erskine. But — here the orator skillfully passed to the offensive — what was the conduct of the opposition meanwhile? When peaceful experiments were undergoing a trial, the opposition was "the champion of war, the proud, the spirited, the sole repository of the nation's honor, denouncing the administration as weak, feeble, pusillanimous," and incapable of being kicked into war: —
"When, however, foreign nations, perhaps emboldened by the very opposition here made, refuse to listen to amicable appeals; when, in fact, war with one of them has become a matter of necessity, demanded by our independence and our sovereignty, behold the opposition veering round and becoming the friends of peace and commerce, telling of the calamities of war, the waste of the public treasury, the spilling of innocent blood — 'Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire.' Now we see them exhibiting the terrific form of the roaring king of the forest; now the meekness and humility of the lamb. They are for war and no restrictions, when the administration is for peace. They are for peace and restrictions, when the administration is for war. You find them, sir, tacking with every gale, displaying the colors of every party and of all nations, steady only in one unalterable purpose, — to steer, if possible, into the haven of power."
Over the charge that the administration had been duped by France, a very sore point, he skipped nimbly, ridiculing the idea of French influence as well as the tremendous denunciations of Bonaparte, in which the opposition were fond of indulging. With these denunciations he dexterously coupled an attack made by Quincy upon Jefferson; and then, to inflame the party spirit of wavering Republicans, he burst out in that famous eulogy on Jefferson which has long figured in our school-books: —
"Neither his retirement from public office, nor his eminent services, nor his advanced age, can exempt this patriot from the coarse assaults of party malevolence. Sir, in 1801 he snatched from the rude hand of usurpation the violated Constitution of his country, and that is his crime. He preserved that instrument in form, and substance, and spirit, a precious inheritance for generations to come; and for this he can never be forgiven. How vain and impotent is party rage directed against such a man! He is not more elevated by his lofty residence upon the summit of his favorite mountain than he is lifted, by the serenity of his mind, and the consciousness of a well-spent life, above the malignant passions and bitter feelings of the day."
Did the opposition speak of the danger to popular liberty arising from a large army? They were the same party that had tried to strangle popular liberty with the alien and sedition laws. Did the opposition, as Quincy had done, accuse the Republican leaders of cabinet plots, presidential plots, and all manner of plots for the gratification of personal ambition? "I wish," he replied with stinging force, "that another plot — a plot that aims at the dismemberment of the Union — had only the same imaginary existence." Then, with a moderation of tone which made the arraignment all the more impressive, he pointed at the efforts made to alienate the minds of the people of New England from the Union.
On the second day of his speech he discussed the causes of the war. "The war was declared," he said, "because Great Britain arrogated to herself the pretension of regulating our foreign commerce, under the delusive name of retaliatory Orders in Council; because she persisted in the practice of impressing American seamen; because she had instigated the Indians to commit hostilities against us; and because she refused indemnity for her past injuries upon our commerce. The war, in fact, was announced, on our part, to meet the war which she was waging on her part." Why not declare war against France, also, for the injuries she inflicted upon American commerce, and the outrageous duplicity of her conduct? "I will concede to gentlemen," he said, "everything they ask about the injustice of France toward this country. I wish to God that our ability was equal to our disposition to make her feel the sense that we entertain of that injustice." But one war at a time was enough. Great Britain, he argued, demanded more than the repeal of the French decrees as to America; she demanded their repeal as to Great Britain and her allies, also, before giving up the Orders in Council; and she gave them up only in consequence of an inquiry, reluctantly consented to by the ministry, into the effect of our non-importation law, or by reason of our warlike attitude, or both.
But now came the ticklish question : Were the Orders in Council the decisive cause of the war, and should their withdrawal end it? Does it follow, he answered, that what in the first instance would have prevented the war should also terminate it? By no means. The war of the Revolution was an example, begun for one object and prosecuted for another. He declared that he had always considered the impressment of American seamen as the most serious aggression, no matter upon what principle Great Britain defended her policy. "It is in vain," he said, "to set up the plea of necessity, and to allege that she cannot exist without the impressment of her seamen. The naked truth is, she comes, by her press-gangs, on board of our vessels, seizes our native as well as naturalized sea men, and drags them into her service. It is wrong that we should be held to prove the nationality of our seamen; it is the business of Great Britain to identify her subjects. The colors that float from the mast-head should be the credentials of our seamen." Then he put forth his whole melodramatic power, drawing tears from the eyes of his listeners.
"It is impossible that this country should ever abandon the gallant tars who have won for us such splendid trophies. Let me suppose that the genius of Columbia should visit one of them in his oppressor's prison, and attempt to reconcile him to his forlorn and wretched condition. She would say to him, in the language of gentlemen on the other side: 'Great Britain intends you no harm; she did not mean to impress you, but one of her own subjects. Having taken you by mistake, I will remonstrate and try to prevail upon her, by peaceable means, to release you; but I cannot, my son, fight for you.' If he did not consider this mockery, the poor tar would address her judgment and say: 'You owe me, my country, protection; I owe you, in return, obedience. I am not a British subject; I am a native of Massachusetts, where lives my aged father, my wife, my children. I have faithfully discharged my duty. Will you refuse to do yours?' Appealing to her passions, he would continue: 'I lost this eye in fighting under Truxton with the Insurgente; I got this scar before Tripoli; I broke this leg on the Constitution, when the Guerrière struck.' If she remained still unmoved, he would break out, in the accents of mingled distress and despair, —
|'||Hard, hard is my fate! Once I freedom enjoyed,
Was as happy, as happy could be!
Oh, how hard is my fate, how galling these chains!'
"I will not imagine the dreadful catastrophe to which he would be driven by an abandonment of him to his oppressor. It will not be, it cannot be, that his country will refuse him protection! If there be any description of rights, which, more than any other, should unite all parties in all quarters of the Union, it is unquestionably the rights of the person. No matter what his vocation, whether he seeks subsistence amid the dangers of the sea, or draws them from the bowels of the earth, or from the humblest occupations of mechanic life, whereever the sacred rights of an American freeman are assailed, all hearts ought to unite and every arm be braced to vindicate his cause."
After this, the objections to the invasion of Canada were easily disposed of. Canada was simply a base of supplies and of operations for the British. Moreover, "what does a state of war present? The united energies of one people arrayed against the combined energies of another; a conflict in which each party aims to inflict all the injury it can, by sea and land, upon the territories, property, and citizens of another, subject only to the rules of mitigated war practiced by civilized nations." This was his final appeal: —
"The administration has erred in the steps to restore peace; but its error has not been in doing too little, but in betraying too great a solicitude for that event. An honorable peace is attainable only by an efficient war. My plan would be, to call out the ample resources of the country, give them a judicious direction, prosecute the war with the utmost vigor, strike wherever we can reach the enemy, at sea and on land, and negotiate the terms of a peace at Quebec or at Halifax. We are told that England is a proud and lofty nation, which, disdaining to wait for danger, meets it half way. Haughty as she is, we once triumphed over her, and, if we do not listen to the counsels of timidity and despair, we shall again prevail. In such a cause, with the aid of Providence, we must come out crowned with success. But if we fail, let us fail like men, lash ourselves to our gallant tars, and expire together in one common struggle, fighting for Free Trade and Seamen's Rights!"
This speech produced a profound impression in the House. What became known of it outside rang like a bugle-call all over the country. The increase of the army was voted by Congress. The war spirit rose again with renewed ardor. But what news came from the front? In the West, General Winchester was overpowered at Frenchtown on February 22. His command had to surrender and part of it was massacred. General Harrison found himself obliged to fall back. On the Niagara and the St. Lawrence, an expedition was pushed forward, which, on April 27, resulted in the temporary capture of York (now Toronto), but no lodgment was effected. While the navy had struck some splendid blows, the British gradually increased their force and made the superiority of their power tell. They strengthened their blockade of New York, of the Delaware, and the Chesapeake. British ships ascended the bays and the rivers, and landed parties to plunder and set fire to villages on the banks. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Annapolis became alarmed for their safety. In Virginia, a slave insurrection was feared. The port of Charleston was strictly blockaded.
Every day it became clearer, too, that the Madison administration was ill-fitted for times of great exigency. The war and navy departments were wretchedly managed. There was incapacity above and below. The Treasury was in a state of exhaustion. By April 1, the requisitions of the war and navy departments must have gone unsatisfied had not Astor, Parish, and Girard, three rich foreigners, come to the assistance of the government. New England Federalism grew constantly more threatening in its hostility to the war policy. In addition to all this, tidings of evil import arrived from Europe. Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow brought forth new European combinations against him in aid of England. More and more English ships and English veteran regiments might then be spared from the European theatre of war, to be hurled against the United States. The prospect of dictating a peace at Quebec or Halifax grew exceedingly dim.
Just then a ray of peace flashed from an unexpected quarter. When, late in the summer of 1812, the Emperor of Russia learned that the United States had declared war against Great Britain, it struck him as very inconvenient that his ally, England, should be embarrassed by this outside affair while Napoleon was invading Russia, and while a supreme effort seemed to be required to prevent him from bringing all Europe to his feet. Alexander resolved to offer himself as a mediator. His Chancellor, Romanzoff, on September 21, opened the matter to the American Minister at St. Petersburg, John Quincy Adams, as well as to the British envoy. At the same time, the Russian Minister at Washington, Daschkoff, was instructed to communicate to President Madison the Emperor's wish. This he did in March, 1813, a few days after Madison's second inauguration. Madison received the proposition with exceeding gladness. Without waiting to learn whether this Russian mediation was acceptable to England, he forthwith nominated as ministers, to act jointly with John Quincy Adams in negotiating a peace, Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Senator Bayard of Delaware, a patriotic Federalist, and a man of excellent abilities. They sailed for St. Petersburg early in May, and took instructions with them in which impressments and illegal blockades were designated as the chief causes of the war. With regard to the impressment question, the instructions said: "If this encroachment is not provided against, the United States have appealed to arms in vain. If your efforts to accomplish it should fail, all further negotiation will cease, and you will return home without delay."
The envoys reached St. Petersburg in July, and learned that Great Britain was not inclined to accept any mediation. The haughty mistress of the sea would not submit her principles of blockade and her claim to the right of impressment and search to the judgment of any third party. She preferred to treat with the United States directly; and when the Russian offer of mediation was renewed, the British government sent a proposal of direct negotiation to Washington. This was promptly accepted, and the President appointed for that purpose a new commission, consisting of John Quincy Adams, Bayard, Clay, Jonathan Russell, then Minister of the United States to Sweden, and Gallatin.
Clay had again been elected Speaker, in May, 1813, when the new Congress met. He had again done all he could to "fire the national heart," this time by a resolution to inquire into certain acts of barbarous brutality committed by the British and their savage allies during the winter and spring. But when the President urged upon him a place in the peace commission, he accepted. His subsequent conduct permits the guess that his motive in accepting it was his anxious desire to prevent a humiliating peace. On January 14, 1814, he resigned the speakership of the House of Representatives, and soon afterward he set out on one of the strangest diplomatic missions of our time.