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Memorandum of a Conversation with Augustus J. Foster, 23 June 1812 (Abstract)

§ Memorandum of
a Conversation with Augustus J. Foster

23 June 1812, Washington. “Mr. Forrest Clerk in the Foreign Office, having intimated that the President would not be displeased, were Mr. Foster to call to take leave of him, and repeated some civil expressions of his in relation to Mr. Foster, Mr. Foster requested Mr. Forrest to ascertain from Mr. Monroe, whether he might have the honor to wait upon Mr. Madison next day the 23d. Instant.

“Mr. Forrest came accordingly in the morning to say that the President would be glad to see Mr. Foster at any hour; and accordingly Mr. Foster went with Mr. Baker1 to see him.

“After some usual conversation about weather, during which it appeared Mr. Madison rather wished than expected to be able to go to his Country Seat, & some observations upon the late dreadful account of Mr. Percivals murder, Mr. Madison expressed his regret at the situation in which the two Countries ar⟨e⟩ placed, and his sincere desire to see the causes removed. Mr. Foster joined with him in the regret. The President entered into a good deal of explanation as to the declara⟨tion⟩ of War; he observed upon the Embarrassm⟨ent⟩ created to the Executive branch in America, on a question of War, as the Act of Congress was specific and allowed of no modificatio⟨n⟩ wishing as it appeared to give it to be understood, that his desire was to avoid ⟨as⟩ much as possible pushing matters to extrem⟨es⟩ altho’ he did not well see how it could be avoided. Mr. Foster observed upon the danger there was of Collision at Sea, And in particular of the fear there was a f⟨ew⟩ days back, of two American Frigates that sailed from the Chesapeake, before the Declaration of War, meeting his Majesty’s Ships Tartarus & Belvidera, which were reported to be off New York.2 The Presiden⟨t⟩ then observed he had not thought the former would have arrived from the Chesapeake at New York so soon; he had not thought the wind was favorable at the time they sailed. The conversation fell a good deal upon the possibility of a change of measures in England, grounded on the late News. Mr. Foster asked if the Orders in Council were revoked, would peace be restored. Mr. Madison said if the Orders in Council were revoked, and a promise of negociation given on the Question of Impressment it would suffice; that we could not perhaps do more on the latter at present than offer to negociate. Mr. Foster observed the latter did not form a prominent feature in the late discussions, and urged that a mistake in knowing the views of each other, would create three months delay; wished to know if an immediate Armistice would be produced. The President talked much of the responsibility on the Executive, that he would do what would best consult his Duty. Mr. Foster asked how long Congress would sit. The President said ten days or a fortnight; & that if the Orders were revoked in that time, they would certain⟨ly⟩ take some step in consequence.3 On some expressions of his, Mr. Foster asked if ther⟨e⟩ was no danger of any of the American Officers’, undertaking some measure which might further commit the two Countries. He said no measures would be taken but for defe⟨nce⟩.

“In talking of Neutrals, Mr. Foster suppos⟨ed⟩ perhaps there would be no further occasion for the Orders in Council, now that scarce a Neutral remained. The President seemed to acquiesce. He did not know if Portugal wer⟨e⟩ considered Neutral: asked if the Treaty betw⟨een⟩ England & Portugal4 were offensive & defensiv⟨e⟩. Mr. Foster said not against America, as he was convinced. Mr. Foster asked if Spain would be considered Neutral; and here the President expressed his idea, that secret articles might exist between Spain & Engla⟨nd⟩ and seemed to wish to understand, that Spain would be obliged to make common cause with England in the war against America. Mr. Foster put him in mind of Mr. Monroe’s former expressions, relative to Mr. Wellesley’s having urged the Cortez to war with America;5 that he had reported home those expressions of Mr. Monroe, & had been enabled afterwards most decidedly to contradict them. On Mr. Foster’s again pressing the subject of Expeditions, which might be undertaken by the United States Government, (having allusion to Florida); the President observ’d the Executive could not well be justified, in stopping any expeditions, which might have been undertaken at a time when perhaps alone they could be successful. It seemed indeed evident that he was decided to take Florida if he could,6 and for purposes of defence, that something else might be done, probably Fort Malden taken. Mr. Foster observed that the Bramble was expected with the Seamen taken from the Chesapeake,7 and that Mr. Baker would see that arrangement carried into complete execution, remaining here with that view as had been agreed on. Mr. Baker then said Mr. Monroe had, he understood, communicated to the President, what had passed relative to his (Mr. Baker⟨’s)⟩ remaining behind, to which the President replied that he had.

“Mr. Baker observed at parting, that he should have the honor of seeing the Preside⟨nt⟩ again, before he left the Country; but the President seemed to wish to avoid this subjec⟨t⟩ tho’ he allowed that Mr. Monroe had explaine⟨d⟩ the matter. The President shook hands with Mr. Foster.”8

Ms (PRO: Foreign Office, ser. 5, vol. 86). 8 pp. In Foster’s hand. Enclosed in Foster to Castlereagh, 24 June 1812 (ibid.).

1Shortly after this meeting Foster departed Washington, leaving his secretary of legation, Anthony St. John Baker, behind as the unofficial chargé d’affaires for Great Britain (Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , 6:33–34).

2The frigates United States and Congress had encountered the Belvidera and Tartarus off Sandy Hook on 18 June while en route to join Commodore John Rodgers’s squadron in New York. After the American frigates arrived in New York, Rodgers put to sea, and as JM and Foster were meeting in Washington, Rodgers, in the President, encountered the Belvidera southwest of Nantucket Shoals. Rodgers engaged the enemy, but the captain of the Belvidera lightened ship and escaped (Dudley et al., Naval War of 1812, 1:138, 153–57).

3Congress adjourned on 6 July 1812; news of the 23 June repeal of the orders in council did not reach Washington until early August (National Intelligencer, 15 Aug. 1812).

4See Charles Hall to JM, 22 Apr. 1811 (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 , 3:277–78 and n. 1).

5On 21 Nov. 1811 Foster reported to Lord Wellesley the substance of a 20 Nov. conference with Monroe during which the secretary of state announced “that letters received by his Government from Cadiz informed them that Great Britain,” with the encouragement of the British minister to Cádiz, Henry Wellesley, “had been urging the Cortez to make war on the United States by confiscating their Ships.” Foster characterized this accusation as merely a pretext for U.S. involvement in East Florida, and Foreign Secretary Wellesley instructed him to assure the U.S. that such a charge was “utterly unfounded” (Foster to Wellesley, 21 Nov. 1811, and Wellesley to Foster, 28 Jan. 1812 [PRO: Foreign Office, ser. 5, vols. 77 and 83]).

6Foster no doubt drew this conclusion from recent proceedings in the House of Representatives. On 19 June, George Troup of Georgia motioned and the House resolved that a committee “be instructed to inquire into the expediency of authorizing the President of the United States to occupy East and West Florida, without delay.” On 22 June the committee presented a bill to that effect, and the House voted the same day that the subject matter required secrecy. The bill passed the House on 26 June only to be killed in the Senate on 3 July (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., 323–26, 1683, 1686).

7During the 22 June 1807 encounter between the Leopard and the Chesapeake, the British had taken four seamen believed to be deserters. Foster’s 4 Mar. 1812 instructions informed him that the two surviving captured seamen had been put on board the Bramble, bound for the “Coast of America.” On 10 July 1812 they were brought into Boston harbor from Halifax aboard the Brim and were released into U.S. custody the following day in an official ceremony held aboard the Chesapeake (Spencer C. Tucker and Frank T. Reuter, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 [Annapolis, Md., 1996], pp. 15–16, 211; Mayo, Instructions to British Ministers description begins Bernard Mayo, ed., Instructions to British Ministers to the United States, 1791–1812, Annual Report of the American Historical Association of the Year 1936, vol. 3 (Washington, 1941). description ends , p. 349).

8The memorandum continues by describing a meeting of Foster, Baker, and Monroe which directly followed the conversation with JM. Monroe assured the British minister that orders given to American officers “were confined to the Marine league.” The secretary of state refused to discuss Florida, “tho’ Mr. Foster expressed his hopes they would not commen⟨ce⟩ hostilities for a sandbank.” Foster sought confirmation that a repeal of the orders in council would prevent war, but Monroe “declined saying positively it would be the Ca⟨se⟩,” claiming to be unsure of JM’s intentions. Monroe agreed to see Baker “as often as he pleased.” Returning to the question of the repeal of the orders in council, “Mr. Foster urged repeatedly the good policy of at once suspending all hostility by agreement, until further Intelligence should be received from Great Britain; as the President, being only authorized by the A⟨ct⟩ of Congress, but not directed, to carry on the War, it would seem that he might, if it so pleased him, have suspended all Military and Naval operations,” in which case Foster promised that Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer would observe an armistice. Monroe could only respond with vague assurances, explaining that “the chief objection of the Amer⟨ican⟩ Government to enter into such agreement, w⟨as⟩ that there did not appear at present any certainty of the Orders in Council being rep⟨ealed⟩.” It was Foster’s impression that the president resisted his suggestion so as to avoid appearing, by negotiation, to “elude the effect of the War.” JM’s reluctance to concede that “Mr. Baker’s remaining behind was at all connected with a diplomatic object” seemed to Foster a confirmation of this interpretation.

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