James Madison Papers

From James Madison to George W. Campbell, 2 November 1814

To George W. Campbell


Washington Novr. 2. 1814.

Dear Sir

The Committee appointed by the H. of Reps. to enquire into the causes of the late military events in this District, have called for information on the members of the Cabinet, and the call will embrace you.1 That you may be under no restraint whatever from official or personal confidence, I think it proper to intimate to you that in relation to myself, I hope no information you may be able to give will be witheld from either of those considerations.

I am so far from wishing to circumscribe the range of enquiry, on the subject, that I am anxious that every circumstance may be reached that can throw light on it. I am the more anxious, because I understand that a statement furnished by the late Secretary of war, implicates me in two particulars, 1. that I committed to him the direction of the operations on the field of battle, which I could not even legally do. 2 that at a critical moment I interposed & prevented it.2

On the latter point I am aware that as you were not on the ground, you can have no direct knowlege, & may be without a knowledge of any circumstances indirectly bearing on it. It is a point however which I believe can be disproved by evidence as decisive as can be required to establish the negative.

On the first point your memory may furnish circumstances not unimportant, as the statement in question has doubtless reference to the conversation with Genl. Armstrong on the morning of Aug. 24, to which I was led by the regret you expressed at his apparent reserve on so momentous a crisis, & your suggestion that he might be kept back by some feeling of delicacy in relation to Genl. Winder.3

The conversation was held very near to you, but no part of it might be within your hearing. Your recollection of my reply to your remarks, & of my communication of what passed between me & Genl. Armstrong may, in connection with recollections of others, aid in elucidating truth.4

I have heard with pleasure that you were far advanced on your journey to Nashville, and that your health was improving. With my sincere wishes for its perfect restoration, accept assurances of my great esteem & my friendly respects.

James Madison

RC (NjP); draft (DLC). RC docketed by Campbell. Minor differences between the copies have not been noted.

1On 22 Sept. 1814 Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky introduced a resolution to form the committee. After some discussion the following day, it was amended and unanimously approved by the House, reading as follows: “That a committee be appointed to inquire into the causes of the success of the enemy in his late enterprises against the Metropolis, and the neighbor[i]ng town of Alexandria, and into the manner in which the public buildings and property were destroyed, and the amount thereof; and that they have power to send for persons and papers.” Johnson was named chairman of the committee, which also included William Lowndes of South Carolina, Richard Stockton of New Jersey, Morris S. Miller of New York, Charles Goldsborough of Maryland, Philip P. Barbour of Virginia, and Israel Pickens of North Carolina. Johnson, Lowndes, Barbour and Pickens were Republicans, and Stockton, Miller, and Goldsborough were Federalists. On 5 Nov. 1814, in reply to an inquiry regarding the committee’s activities, Johnson stated that it had conducted numerous interviews, had collected voluminous documentary evidence, and was waiting for still more letters and reports, including one from James Monroe. As soon as it could adequately process this mass of data, Johnson promised, the committee would present a report to the House. The document that it delivered on 29 Nov. 1814 totaled 368 pages in published form. It included the committee’s summary of the events under consideration, a report of the distribution of the army prior to July 1814 (for the report, see John Armstrong to JM, 4 June 1814, PJM-PS, description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (8 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends 7:537 and n. 1), and statements from numerous military officers involved in the affair and all of JM’s cabinet officers except Campbell. The committee found that preparations for the capital’s defense had been adequate but expressly declined to pass judgment on the military decisions made in response to the British advance (Annals of Congress, description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends 13th Cong., 3d sess., 304–5, 308–10, 527–29; Martis, Historical Atlas of Political Parties, 82; Report of the Committee Appointed on the Twenty-Third of September Last to Inquire into the Causes and Particulars of the Invasion of the City of Washington, by the British Forces in the Month of August, 1814 [Washington, 1814; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 33404]). Campbell’s 7 Dec. 1814 statement, not included in the first report, was published separately as Letter from George W. Campbell, Esq. Late Secretary of the Treasury, to the Chairman of the Committee Appointed to Inquire into the Causes and Particulars of the Invasion of the City of Washington, and the Neighboring Town of Alexandria, in the Month of August Last (Washington, 1815; Shaw and Shoemaker description begins R. R. Shaw and R. H. Shoemaker, comps., American Bibliography: A Preliminary Checklist for 1801–1819 (22 vols.; New York, 1958–66). description ends 36277).

2JM’s argument that it would have been illegal for him to put John Armstrong in command at the Battle of Bladensburg may have been akin to the opinion articulated in Richard Rush to JM, 4 Dec. 1814: it would be “incompatible under the laws” for an individual to simultaneously hold commissions as a cabinet officer and a military officer; therefore Armstrong, as secretary of war, could not legally act as a battlefield commander. In his 17 Oct. 1814 letter to Johnson, responding to the committee’s request for information, Armstrong wrote that when he and Treasury Secretary George W. Campbell joined JM, William Jones, and Richard Rush at Brig. Gen. William H. Winder’s headquarters in Washington on the morning of 24 Aug. 1814, Winder was ready to leave for Bladensburg and did not consult with him regarding battle plans. “This state of things,” Armstrong continued, “gave occasion to a conversation, principally conducted by the President and the Secretary of the Treasury, which terminated in an understanding that I should repair to the troops, and give such directions as were required by the urgency of the case. I lost not a moment in fulfilling this intention, and had barely time to reconnoitre the march of the enemy, and to inform myself of our own arrangements, when I again met the President, who told me that he had come to a new determination, and that the military functionaries should be left to the discharge of their own duties, on their own responsibilities. I now became, of course, a mere spectator of the combat” (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States … (38 vols.; Washington, 1832–61). description ends , Military Affairs, 1:538–40).

3For JM’s account of the discussion, see his Memorandum of Conversations with John Armstrong, 24 Aug. 1814.

4Richard Rush wrote Campbell as well on 2 Nov. 1814, noting that Campbell would be asked to provide information, and enclosing a copy of Rush’s own statement to the committee which, he said, “agrees substantially with the recollections of the other gentlemen here.” Rush observed that although JM denied Armstrong’s accusations, he would “be silent” in the investigation; however, the president wanted “all who had any concern in the administration at that period [to] state without reserve whatever they know or can recollect whatever may be its operation, a full developement of truth being of course his only and anxious object” (InU: War of 1812 Collection).

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