James Madison Papers

From James Madison to John Barker, 21 February 1810

To John Barker

Washington Feby 21. 1810.


I have recd. your letter of the 17th. covering the Address & Resolutions adopted in the first Congressional District of the State of Penna. and avail myself of the same channel, for conveying an answer to the former. I tender at the same time, my acknowledgments for your kind expressions, and assurances of my respect & good wishes.


To the Republican Citizens of the 1st. Congressional District of the State of Penna.

I have recd., fellow Citizens, your address of the 14th. inst: with the impressions which its assurances of approbation & attachment could not fail to make; and with every participation in your sensibility to the extraordinary circumstances which continue to distinguish our foreign relations.

You do no more than justice as well to my predecessor as to myself, in referring the course which has been pursued, to a steady purpose, of witholding from each Belligerent, a pretext for disturbing our rightful intercourse with the other, by observing towards both, the strictest impartiality, in exercising our neutral rights, and in fulfilling our neutral Obligations. This unexceptionable conduct, which ought to have shielded us from aggressions of every sort, has been followed by a perseverance in multiplying them, which no appeals to Law, to reason, or to that policy which alone accords with the true interest of Nations, as of individuals, have succeeded in averting or arresting.

In this State of things, it lies with the Legislative Councils, to decide on the measures adapted to it.1 That their decisions, will duly consult the sense of the Nation, and faithfully pursue its best interests, is what I feel great satisfaction in presuming; as I do, in witnessing the patriotism, which, in your example, unites with a manly expression of your particular sentiments, a confidence in the Constituted Authorities, and a determination to support them. Accept, fellow Citizens, my respects & friendly wishes.

Draft (DLC).

1There is some evidence that JM by this time was weary of receiving and answering all the addresses sent to him. In a lengthy editorial entitled “Addresses! Addresses!!” on 5 Feb. 1810, the National Intelligencer complained of the “pernicious tendency of complimentary Addresses to the Chief Magistrate.” The editorialist even wished that other Republican newspapers would censure these productions on the grounds that their organization suggested they were intended as “instruments of preferment” and, as such, they “neither inspire respect for their authors or the man to whom they are addressed.”

Developing the theme, the writer declared that “no one since the corrupt & courtly days of the Stuarts, received more of these distinguished honors, seasoned too with every ingredient that could gratify the palate of the epicure, than John Adams,” and the author then inquired rhetorically as to what had been the fate of the second president. (JM, it might be recalled, had been greatly disturbed by the manner in which John Adams had responded to similar addresses in the late 1790s, and he had at that time denounced Adams’s conduct as “the most grotesque scene in the tragicomedy” of the Quasi-War with France [JM to Jefferson, 10 June 1798, PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (1st ser., vols. 1-10, Chicago, 1962-77, vols. 11-17, Charlottesville, Va., 1977-91). description ends , 17:150].) The editorialist contended, moreover, that such addresses were unnecessary, particularly in a society where there already existed adequate means for the expression of public opinion and the very structure of the republic itself provided for “infusing into the government the wishes of the people” at regular and prescribed intervals. Drawing upon a distinction that would have been approved by the authors of The Federalist, the editorialist reminded his readers that the U.S. was “a representative government” and not “a pure democracy” and that accordingly “all rational liberty must depend on the vigorous maintena[n]ce” of the former condition as opposed to the latter.

In this context, the writer argued that while the people certainly had the right to address their representatives, it was inappropriate for them to approach the executive, “the fountain of office,” in the same way, and that by doing so, they exposed the chief magistrate to “peculiar difficulties.” The addresses invariably censured a foreign power in bold and warm language. “A congenial answer is expected. It is received. It is couched in terms of firmness; but it has none of the fire of the address,” even though “reflecting men” should “see that it would be unworthy of the President to indulge in angry passions on such, or indeed on any occasion.” The result, the editorialist complained, was “a general disappointment,” and “it is inferred that the Executive govt. wants nerve.” This inference was unjust, since “the bulk of the people do not reflect that, it rests with another department of the govt. to take the decided steps that lead to war, and that if the Chief Magistrate should even be of opinion that such, or any other vigorous measure ought to be taken, yet that this conviction does not diminish the respect he owes to his station, his personal character, or to the very nation which has ⟨sir?⟩ed us; they do not, in fine, reflect that the constitution has enjoined upon the government the duty of acting, and not of coining words, of which, God knows, we have already to our shame more than enough.”

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