James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Joel Barlow, 17 November 1811

To Joel Barlow


Washington Novr 17. 1811

Dear Sir

You will receive by this conveyance the proper communications from the Dept. of State.1 You will see in them, the ground now avowed for the B. Orders in Council. It must render them co-durable with the war; for nothing but a termination of it will re-open the continental market to British products. Nor is it probable that peace will do it in its former extent. The pretension which requires the U. S. as a neutral power to assert an obligation on one belligerent, to favor, by its internal regulations, the manufactures of another, is a fitter subject for ridicule than refutation. It accordingly has no countenance here even among the most devoted Champions of G. B. Whether some of them, by arming themselves with simulated facts & sophystical distinctions, may not be embolded to turn out in her defence, will soon be seen. Nothing has yet passed in Congs. disclosing the sense of that Body, with respect to the moment & manner of meeting the conduct of G. B. in its pressent hostile shape.2 A disposition appears to enter at once on preparations, which will probably be put in force or not, as the effect of them on the British Councils, shall be ascertained in the course of the session. In the mean time it is not improbable that the merchant vessels may be permitted to arm for self-defence.3 This can scarcely fail to bring on maritime reprisals; and to end in the full extent of war; unless a change in the British system should arrest the career of events. All proceedings however relating to G. Britain will be much influenced by the conduct of France not only as it relates to a violation of our neutral rights; but of our national ones also, and to justice for the past as well as for the future and that too not only in cases strictly French, but in those in Naples & elsewhere indirect[l]y so. Altho’ in our discussions with G. B. we have been justified in viewing the repeal of the French decrees as sufficiently substantiated to require a fulfilment of the pledge to repeal the orders in Council; yet the manner in which the F. Govt. has managed the repeal of the decrees, and evaded a correction of other outrages, has mingled with the conciliatory tendency of the repeal, as much of irritation and disgust as possible. And these sentiments are not a little strengthened by the sarcastic comments on that management, with which we are constantly pelted in our discussions with the B. Govt., and for which the F. Govt. ought to be ashamed to furnish the occasion. In fact without a systematic change from an appearance of crafty contrivance, and insatiate cupidity, to an open manly & upright dealing with a nation whose example demands it, it is impossible that good will can exist; and that the ill will which her policy aims at directing against her enemy, should not, by her folly and iniquity be drawn off against herself. The late licenciousness of the F. privateers in the Baltic, the ruinous transmission of their cases to Paris, and the countenance said to be there given to such abuses,4 are kindling a fresh flame here: And if a remedy be not applied, & our merchantmen should arm, hostile collisions will as readily take place with one nation as the other. Were it not that our frigates would be in danger of rencounters with British Ships of superior force in that quarter, there could be no scruple at sending thither some of them, with orders to suppress by force the French and Danish depredations. I am aware that a pretext for these has been sought in the practice of our vessels in accepting British Convoy; but have they not in many instances at least been driven to this irregular step by the greater irregularities practised agst. them? We await the return of the Constitution not without a hope of finding the good effect of your remonstrances in a radical change of the French policy towards this Country.

The reparation for the outrage on the Chesapeake frigate, which you will find in the correspondence between Mr. F. & Mr. M.5 tho’ in a stile & extent sufficiently admissible under actual circumstances, has been so timed as to lose its conciliatory effect, by wearing the appearance of a diplomatic ruse. Those who value it most, do so on the calculation that Mr. F. is authorized to go forward in the road from which he has removed the stumbling block. In this they allow their wishes to mislead their judgments.

From a late communication of Mr. Russel, to the Secretary of State it appears that the F. Emperor has very wisely made up his mind for the Independence of Spanish America; and for the possession of E. as well as W. Florida by the U. S.6 It is to be hoped that no unworthy attempts will be made to extract money from the occasion. 1. because it is incompatible with the assumed idea that Sp: Ama. must be independent. 2. because, without our occupancy, that of G. B. would be interposed. 3. & essentially, because the pecuniary value of the territory is due from Spain to the U. S. You ought to know, that there is good reason to believe that an agent (Keene)7 for certain grasping land Jobbers of N. Orleans & possibly elsewhere, has been treating with the Cortes for the vacant lands in E. Florida. And it may be counted on that equal art & avarice will mingle themselves with every opportunity for corrupt speculations.

Hitherto the Continental Colonies of S. America have masked their views of independence, under a nominal adherence to Ferdinand as the head of the whole empire, in contradisti[n]ction to the Cortes governing the European part of it only. Venezuela however has thrown off this mask, has communicated to us its declaration of Independence, and solicits our acknowledging it by receiving a pub: Minister &c. Mexico, according to our intelligence wch. is difficult & obscure, is still in the struggle between the revolutionary & royal parties.8

In what manner G. B. will proceed in the case of Venezuela, & other districts following its example does not yet appear. Whilst Ferdinand was acknowledged, it was less difficult to steer between the Cortes and the Colonies. It will require more dexterity to reconcile her political connections with the former, and her commercial views towards the latter. If our information from Cadiz be not very erroneous, she is doing us all the mischief there which her influence can effect.9 What her conduct may be in the event of our taking possession of E. Florida, cannot yet be said.10 The game she will play with Cuba, may more readily be conjectured. But like most of her others it may in the end be a losing one.

You will receive from the Dept of State a set of Newspapers, & will see the pub. countenance as reflected in that Mirror. I add one or two which happen to be at hand and to contain some things worth perusal.11 Accept my great esteem & most friendly respe⟨ct⟩

James Madison


1Monroe’s 21 Nov. 1811 instructions to Barlow enclosed a copy of JM’s annual message to Congress (DNA: RG 59, IM).

2Those sections of JM’s 5 Nov. 1811 message dealing with foreign relations were referred to select committees in the Senate and House of Representatives on 8 and 12 Nov., respectively. On 29 Nov. the House committee reported back a bill to increase the military establishment, while the Senate committee made its report on 9 Dec. (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 12th Cong., 1st sess., 16, 17, 29, 335, 373–77).

3JM had not included any recommendation to this effect in his 5 Nov. message to Congress, but on 29 Nov. 1811 the House select committee on foreign relations reported a resolution authorizing American merchantmen to arm in self-defense “under proper regulations, to be prescribed by law.” Congress, however, passed no such legislation before the declaration of war against Great Britain on 18 June 1812 (ibid., 12th Cong., 1st sess., 199–200, 209, 218, 377, 1347, 1353).

4In August 1811 JM’s special minister to Denmark, George W. Erving, informed both the State Department and Jonathan Russell in Paris of the capture of two American vessels by a French privateer in Swedish waters. The vessels were then taken into Copenhagen, where the French consul, Mr. Desaugiers, over Erving’s objections, sent the papers of the cases to Paris for judgment (Erving to Monroe, 18 Aug. and 8 Sept. 1811; Erving to Russell, 9 Aug. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, DD, Denmark; extracts printed in ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:559]).

5At a later time, JM interlined “Foster” and “Monroe” above these abbreviations.

6In his coded dispatch to Monroe of 2 Sept. 1811, Jonathan Russell reported a conversation he had held with the duc de Bassano on 20 Aug. in which the French minister confidentially communicated Napoleon’s policy toward Spanish America. That policy was to acknowledge the independence of every Spanish colony that had “the spirit and the physical means to assert it and to aid in its achievement.” The French minister in Washington, Bassano continued, would be given “precise propositions” on how France believed the U.S. could best contribute to this goal, and he suggested that arms, ammunition, and military officers constituted the sort of aid most needed in the Spanish colonies. On that basis Russell concluded that the part of the Floridas “which does not already incontrovertibly belong to the United States” was included within Bassano’s statement, and he urged the minister to obtain Napoleon’s “unqualified consent to the possession of the portion including amelia Island, by the American Government.” Bassano conceded that the Floridas could not survive as an “independent nation” and that French policy concurred with their annexation to the U.S., but Russell feared that the presence in Paris of a commissioner from Madrid with powers to negotiate with an authorized American agent suggested that any future cession of Floridian territory “will not be gratuitously made” (DNA: RG 59, DD, France; decoded by John Graham).

7JM probably referred to Richard R. Keene, a New Orleans lawyer who had been arrested in 1807 on suspicion of his having been involved in Burr’s conspiracy (William C. C. Claiborne to James Wilkinson, 2 Jan. 1807, Rowland, Claiborne Letter Books description begins Dunbar Rowland, ed., Official Letter Books of W. C. C. Claiborne, 1801–1816 (6 vols.; Jackson, Miss., 1917) description ends , 4:77–78).

8JM’s remarks suggest that he had been informed of the contents of the 27 Sept. 1811 letter from Francisco Mariano Sora and José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara to Monroe, which sought assistance for the remnants of the cause of the Mexican rebel priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (DNA: RG 59, CD, Mexico City; PJM-PS description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (4 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends , 3:xxviii–xxix).

9Consular dispatches received in the State Department from Cádiz and Havana reported that the cortes was engaged in negotiations with Great Britain for a loan, and the American consuls in both ports also forwarded copies of an agreement between Spain and Great Britain respecting the Spanish American colonies (Richard Hackley to Monroe, 10 and 27 Sept. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, CD, Cadiz]; William Shaler to Monroe, 17 Sept. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, CD, Havana]). The contents of these dispatches confirmed a report taken from a British newspaper and printed in the 31 Oct. 1811 National Intelligencer to the effect that the cortes had accepted on 19 June 1811 the mediation of Great Britain in the disputes between Spain and its American colonies. The terms of the mediation allowed Great Britain to trade with the Spanish colonies during the period of negotiation on the understanding that if the mediation was unsuccessful, Great Britain would then assist Spain in returning the colonies “to their duty.” In an editorial comment the National Intelligencer denounced this proposal as “perfectly visionary” and predicted that Great Britain and Spain would find it “a fruitless & dangerous undertaking” to coerce the colonies. The newspaper also warned Spanish Americans to beware of the sincerity of the British who promised both to facilitate their independence and to bring them “back to their duty” to the mother country.

10On 21 Oct. 1811 William Shaler wrote to the State Department with the news received from Cádiz that Spain would appoint a new governor for Cuba who was to arrive accompanied by an expeditionary force of eight thousand men. These were to be joined by ten thousand British troops, and the whole body of men was to be employed in the suppression of the Mexican rebellion. Shaler doubted whether every detail in these accounts was true, but he did not question the notion that the authorities in Spain had made some sort of arrangement under duress with the British (DNA: RG 59, CD, Havana). From Cádiz, Richard Hackley reported in a similar fashion that an expeditionary force of six to eight thousand men was being fitted out, “destined for Vera-Cruz as it is said.” This force was to be convoyed by vessels of the Royal Navy and its avowed purpose was “to aid the Governmt. of New Spain against the revolutionists” (Hackley to Monroe, 10 Sept. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, CD, Cadiz; postmarked as received in Philadelphia on 9 Nov. 1811]).

11JM probably also included a letter written by Dolley Madison to Ruth Baldwin Barlow on 15 Nov. 1811 (CSmH). This provided the Barlows with news of mutual friends and family as well as some political gossip from the capital. Specifically, Dolley Madison requested that William Lee be informed “that——[John Armstrong’s?] conduct has not injured him here, on the contrary, it ex[c]ited a horror of the persicutor.” “The instance of Mr R. S.,” she continued, “is strikeing. The poor man is down! Even his Brother professes to have borne no part, & comes here as usial,” while his niece, Madame Bonaparte, “says she is on our side.” “As you have every thing that is beautiful; & we nothing,” Dolley Madison concluded her letter, “I will ask the favor of you to send me by safe Vessels—large Headdresses a few Flowers, Feathers, gloves & stockings Black & White or any other pritty thing, suitable to an Economist & draw on my Husband for the Amt.”

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