From John Wayles Eppes
Thursday. [31 January 1811]
Jno W Eppes presents his respects to the President. He considers the subject on which he conversed with him today as of so much importance as to merit a deliberate decision of the question whether it is better for the public interest that the non importation law should be at present pushed in the House of Representatives or whether it should be suffered to lie until we asscertain with more certainty the actual situation of our relations with France.1 A discussion of the Bill at the present time “clogged with the official communication of General Turreau that Tobo. and cotton are excluded[”]2 “with the official opinion of the Secretary of State that France has not executed with good faith her agreement”3—“with information from private sources that American vessels have been seized and condemned under the Berlin and Milan decrees since the first of November”—will afford to our adversaries powerful weapons. Under such circumstances the Bill like the Sloath will drag through the house with groans at every step & be opposed by many of our own friends. If passed at all it will be with a feeble majority & connected with a discussion calculated to give to France a very erroneous view of the standing of our Government.
If any provisions for the relief of our own citizens shall be considered necessary—Que—if it would not be better to continue for the present our legal provisions to that object & leave the provisions necessary for the Execution of the Measure until it shall be asscertained, whether such provisions are absolutely necessary.
RC (DLC). Dated 1810 in the Index to the James Madison Papers. Date assigned here on the basis of the evidence discussed in nn. 1 and 3.
1. As chairman of the House committee on foreign relations, Eppes had introduced on 15 Jan. 1811 a bill to supplement the provisions of Macon’s Bill No. 2 by excluding all British vessels, goods, and merchandise from American ports after 2 Feb. 1811, three months after JM’s proclamation of 2 Nov. 1810. The bill was delayed while the House debated the renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States, but in the interval doubts about the extent to which France had repealed the Berlin and Milan decrees were voiced in several quarters. The contents of JM’s message to Congress on 31 Jan. 1811 confirmed the validity of these doubts and was evidently the occasion for Eppes’s conversation with the president (see n. 3). Two days later, on 2 Feb. 1811, Eppes moved that the bill he had introduced on 15 Jan. be recommitted, a step he justified as prudent “until the doubts hanging over our foreign relations were dissipated.” The motion for recommittal was carried, 82 to 9 (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … (42 vols.; Washington, 1834–56). description ends , 11th Cong., 3d sess., 547–51, 863–96).
2. See Robert Smith to Turreau, 18 Dec. 1810, and n. 2.
3. No “official” declaration to this effect by the secretary of state has been found, but it was common knowledge in Washington by the end of January 1811 that the president and Robert Smith were in serious disagreement over the issue of the repeal of the French decrees. After attending the president’s drawing room on 30 Jan. 1811, Joseph Gales, Jr., recorded in his diary that the views of JM and Smith “on the subject of our relations with France, differ essentially—the President being in favor of suspending the Non-intercourse law, as to France, notwithstanding the news from France to January 1st, and the Secretary of State being in favor of postponing the decision of that question until we learn that France has actually revoked her Decrees. The President explained his ideas, at length, and appeared to be afraid to think that France would not fulfil her engagement. The Secretary of State differed from him, upon this point.” On 1 Feb. Gales wrote: “On consulting Mr. Eppes, I find that he is of the same opinion as the Secretary of State; and, before the documents, yesterday brought to the House, and the letter from Mr. Russell, he had addressed a letter to the President, informing him that, under present circumstances, a Bill upon the subject, if carried through the House of Representatives, at all, of which he was very doubtful, would be carried by a feeble majority.” At about the same time Robert Smith also informed the British chargé d’affaires, John Philip Morier, that in his opinion the French decrees “were not repealed, and that, before the rising of the present Congress, the whole of their restrictive commercial System would be entirely done away” (“Recollections of the Civil History of the War of 1812,” Historical Magazine, 3d ser., 3 [1874–75]: 161; Morier to Lord Wellesley, 4 Feb. 1811 [PRO: Foreign Office, ser. 5, vol. 74]).