James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Shaler, 23 March 1812

From William Shaler

New Orleans 23 March 1812


Many circumstances of my errant life having led me to an acquaintance with the Spanish American provinces, and to a tolerable Knoledge of the language, manners and character of their inhabitants, they actually became long since the favorite object of my reflections. I therefore believed that notwithstanding the defects of my education, I possessed a competent share of the qualifications requisite for the Mission you did me the honor to appoint me to:1 and feeling a strong desire to serve my country under an administration, that all who Know me Know full well, my firm, undeviating and disinterested attatchment to, I accepted that honor with pleasure, even with enthousiasm. Notwithstanding the losses I Suffered in my imprudent Speculations to Saint Sebastians I had still a small remain of fortune which I hoped such an employ would give me an opportunity of improving in an honorable manner, and make it equal to my wants, that a life of habitual Oeconomy and frugality has rendered inconsiderable; I therefore proceeded with more satisfaction than I ever did on any enterprize before. The times however disappointed my evidently too sanguine expectations, and in the point that was in my estimation of far the greatest importance: the hope of being usefull. In the mean time my commercial friends failed totally, and involved me to the extent of what I possessed in their ruin. My wandering life has afforded me opportunities of becoming acquainted with many persons, of whose goodwill I am well assured, but it has not been favorable to the formation of friendships that I have a right to found any claim upon; I therefore consider myself as standing alone in the world, without an efficient friend; and as I am but verry slightly Known to any person in the government, except yourself, I take the liberty of addressing you, to ask that you will continue to me the patronage I have flattered myself with possessing since I have had the honor of being Known to you, as far as it may comport with the views of government and your own idea of my capacity.

I have long hesitated on the propriety of this Step, and I beg you to believe Sir, that nothing but my verry precarious situation apparently rendered more so by the late total silence of the department of state, could induce me to take it.2 I feel the utmost confidence that these reasons will be regarded by you Sir, as a Sufficient excuse for this reluctant intrusion. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect & consideration Sir your most obedient humble servant

Wm. Shaler

RC (DNA: RG 59, Communications from Special Agents); letterbook copy (NNPM: The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit).

1For Shaler’s mission, see Madison and the Collapse of the Spanish-American Empire: The West Florida Crisis of 1810, 20 Apr. 1810 (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 , 2:310–12).

2On 8 Nov. 1811 Shaler had been arrested on a plantation outside Havana by agents of the Spanish governor, the marqués de Someruelos. After a lengthy conversation with Someruelos, during which the governor told him that both his prolonged residence on the island “without any visible business” and his known reputation as “a french partizan” cast “an equivocal appearance” on his presence, Shaler agreed to depart from Cuba. He sailed for New Orleans on 11 Dec. 1811 and arrived there ten days later. Following conversations with Governor Claiborne, he decided to pursue the ultimate purpose of his 1810 mission—to go to Mexico—by traveling to Natchitoches, where he hoped to gather information about the state of affairs in “that distracted country.” As he was reformulating his plans in this manner, he continued to inform the State Department as best he could about events in both Cuba and Mexico, and he also requested administration approval for the course of action he was contemplating. Monroe evidently conveyed some, if not all, of Shaler’s letters to JM, and on 2 May 1812 he wrote to the agent informing him that the president approved both his conduct to date and his plans to go on to Mexico (Shaler to Monroe, 13 Nov., 27 Dec. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, CD, Havana]; Shaler to Monroe, 16 Feb., 2 May, 12 July 1812 [DNA: RG 59, Communications from Special Agents, with the 16 Feb. 1812 letter bearing Monroe’s docket, “For the President”]).

Even as he was making preparations in New Orleans for his departure for Natchitoches, Shaler began transmitting news about developments in Mexico, principally rumors to the effect that the revolutionary forces in that colony were “daily gaining ground” and that “nothing could check the current of revolution and save Mexico, but a powerfull reinforcement from Europe.” At this time Governor Claiborne also introduced Shaler to José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who arrived in New Orleans on 23 Mar. 1812 bearing a letter of introduction from State Department clerk John Graham conveying the administration’s wish that Gutiérrez de Lara’s return to Mexico “be expedited.” The Mexican agent then took up lodgings with his American counterpart and together the two men departed for Natchitoches, where they arrived on 28 Apr. 1812 (Shaler to Monroe, 13 Jan., 4 and 16 Feb., 23 Mar., 2 May 1812 [DNA: RG 59, Communications from Special Agents]; West, “Diary of José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, 1811–1812,” pp. 289–90, 292).

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