James Madison Papers

Edward Coles to James Madison, 31 October 1834

Philadelphia Oct: 31. 1834

My dear Sir:

In returning you my grateful acknowledgements for your highly prized letter of the 15th instant, I cannot refrain, though very reluctant to give you trouble, from making a few remarks in reply, and in explanation of what you call my "one sided view of subjects which ought to be viewed on both sides whatever be the decision on them".

In asking your opinion of, and invoking your interposition to arrest certain obnoxious principles and practices of the President, I of course confined myself to such and such only as I considered so. That my remarks were all in disapprobation—or if you please on one side—was natural & to have been expected from me entertaining the opinions I did of the Presidents conduct. That my strictures may have been too strong is probable, as they were prompted by highly excited feelings, created by the apprehension that some of the most vital principles of the Constitution were in the act of being saped by a popular military chieftain, who had in every station he had filled shown a disposition to usurp, abuse, or enlarge his powers, and who had the talent of enlisting partisans as well in political parties as in military ranks, & inspiring them with a zeal & devotion which knew no bounds but his wishes.

It was not my intention to bring in review the principles & conduct of the different parties which have from time to time agitated the Country; nor of the conduct and pretensions in times past of the different co-ordinate Departments of the Govt.; but simply to obtain your opinions, in a form to be preserved, of some of the novel Constitutional doctrines which have been lately promulgated by the President, and addressed, under different appellations, to the people, to Congress, & to his Cabinet, in formal and elaborate political treatises, intended to embrace and set forth the creed of the party of which he is the head and founder. The accuracy of these doctrines have no connection or relation, as I conceive, with the conduct of the Senate, or any of the other Depts of the Govt, & therefore I can see no necessity or occasion for taking into view the course of that body—especially its conduct many years ago—for which the Members of the present Senate are no more responsible than the present Chief Magistrate is for improper claims set up by any of his predecessors in office.

When you observed that "Candor & consistency obliged you in denouncing the heresies of one side not to pass in silence those of the other", I understood you to refer on the one hand to the recent heresies of the President, & on the other to those of the present Senate, a majority of which consist of his political opponents. I did not suppose you alluded to the conduct & pretensions of the Senate years since, or of the individual opinions of its members, expressed in debate on its floor, or out of its walls in dinner speeches. I have at hand no documents to refer to, but if my memory do not greatly deceive me, the present Senate, nor any other Senate since the present Chief Magistrate came into power, has set forth claims or pretensions such as you describe. But if I should be mistaken in this, I must still contend that improper claims of the Senate (and I readily admit those you mention are and would be such) if made, not by a former, but by even the present Senate, would be no justification of the President for those he has recently set up; and therefore I do not perceive their connection or relavency in considering the Constitutional soundness of his doctrines. If it could have been shown that a similar or analogous course had been pursued by any of the Presidents predecessors in office, it might have been adduced as precedent, to which reference might properly be made; but I can see no precedent or excuse for him in the abuse of power by other co-ordinate departments of the Govt. So far from the present antagonist attitude of the President & Senate excusing him for any of his late assumptions & abuses of power, it seems to me it might be urged with much more propriety in excuse for the Members of the Senate, that as violence begets violence, & extreme drives to extreme, the irritation and violence of the President, united with his novel & alarming principles & practice, had irritated & alarmed many of his opponents, and hurried them into excesses, both in expressions & acts, which under other circumstances they would not have given into.

I cannot permit this occasion to pass without expressing the great pleasure I derived from your views so concisely, yet so clearly & distinctly expressed, of the powers of the President in relation to making diplomatic and Consular appointments during the recess of the Senate. Concuring entirely with you, I could not but be concerned at the extent to which opposite opinions prevailed, and that too in quarters where we had a right to expect sounder views on such questions. But ought I not to remind you that these erroneous views were brought forward & urged with great force & ingenuity, & with considerable effect, against the Administration of J. Q. Adams by the friends of Gen: Jackson—and to ask if it is now right to avail ourselves of them to extenuate the conduct of President Jackson. When you charge this conduct of the friends of Gen: Jackson on his opponents, have I not reason to fear that your impression that my views were too much on one side has inadvertently led you further on the opposite side than you would otherwise have gone in this & perhaps other instances.

Associated for so many yours with you; enjoying such opportunities of studying your precepts, & profitting by your example; venerating your character; & feeling for you a filial affection, I am always distrustful of my opinions when they differ from yours on any subject, particularly political, where I flatter myself I am specially your pupil. In accounting for the present apparent difference in our views, I am sensible that I am much more excitable than you, & of course more apt to be mislead; that you have more experience in the good sense of the people, in correcting the workings of passions & parties; & that some allowance ought to be made for the exculpatory views & explanations you receive from those that are near you, & in whom you have confidence; and also from your naturally amiable disposition, which induces you to soften harsh & offensive expressions, & to take the most favourable & respectful views of the motives & conduct of those whose course you do not approve. When proper allowance is made for these peculiarities, & other differences in our situation, I do not believe we shall be found to differ very essentially—indeed I know we did not in the many free & full conversations we have held on the very doctrines & conduct of the President which have been brought into review in our present correspondence. I am sincerely & unchangeably yours

Ed: Coles

Having crowded in on the enclosed sheet all I had to say on one subject, I take up this partly to enclose it, and partly to add something additional on other subjects.

A few days since I was enquired of, if you still owned the House & lot occupied by Mr. Cutts in Washington, and if so whether you wished to sell, & what was your price for it? The Gentleman expressed a wish that I would ascertain & let him know your terms.

Did my friend Monroe, of New York, send you the writings of Alexr: Hamilton & John Jay, which have been lately published by their sons as I requested him?

Not being able to procure any comfortable accommodation that was suitable, and my Wife having a particular aversion to being in a Boardinghouse this winter, and anxious for a private & comfortable house where she could have her Mother & Sister with her, particularly at an interesting crisis, and having the good fortune to find a House & furniture to let until the 10th of June next; I have taken it, & shall remove into it in about a week. The house is situated high up in Chesnut St in a pleasant part of the City, and is completely furnished, except in plate, China, glass, & table & bed Linens of which there are none. I gave more than I ought, but it was the only house with furniture that could be obtained. It will afford us an opportunity, at less cost than in any other mode, to try housekeeping in Phia. This I am desirous of doing, as my Wife is very anxious to reside here—and it is doubtful whether we have the means of doing so, and if we had whether I should be happy with so little to do. We shall now be able to make the experiment this winter. I shall have very little to do, & shall have much time to devote to my friends. I need not tell you how I should be gratified to have it in my power to serve you or Mrs. Madison.

In the letter which I wrote you about a week since, I mentioned that our old friend B. Bassett had come on here for the purpose of being operated on for the Stone. About the time I wrote he was taken with chills & fever, and Dr. Physick has decided not to operate until his general health is restored, and has advised him to return home, and to come again in the Spring to be operated on. I saw him the day before yesterday, when I was in the City (for I am still at Mr. Roberts’ in the Country) and both his health & spirits seemed bad. He hoped his health & strength would enable him to setout about this time for Va

Our old friend James Brown has been confined to his bed for the last month by his old disease. He seems to despair of ever regaining his health, and thinks it doubtful if he ever is able to leave his room. He looks pretty well however, and talks with more animation & bitterness than I write against the conduct of the President. You know I presume that he has never recovered from the attack he had one or two years ago.

Mrs Coles unites with me in offering our affectionate greetings to you & Mrs Madison, and good wishes for the health & happiness of you both

Edward Coles

If Payne is with you tell him his old favourite Mrs Hindman is, or about to be, married to Judge of the Orphans Court of Baltimore—So I was told in Baltimore.

RC (ICHi); extract, without the postscripts (NjP: Edward Coles Papers).

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