James Madison Papers

To James Madison from James Monroe, 25 February 1813

From James Monroe

25. Feby 1813

Dear Sir

Mrs Monroe’s indisposition prevents my seeing you so early this morning as I had intended. For reasons which I will explain, I wish you not to suggest to general armstrong the idea of a military appointment of any kind to me.1 Respectfully your friend

Jas Monroe

RC (DLC: Rives Collection, Madison Papers). Docketed by JM, probably at a later date, “July 25. 1813.”

1Filed in the James Monroe Papers (DLC) is the following seven-page letter from Monroe to JM, also dated 25 Feb. 1813:

“Mrs Monroe’s indisposition preventing my leaving home this morning, I beg to submit to your consideration the following remarks, on the subject of our short conversation last evening.

“You intimated that you had understood that Genl. Armstrong intended to repair to the northern frontiers and to direct the operations of the campaign; and it was afterwards suggested to me, that he would as Secretary at war, perform the duties of Lt General. It merits consideration how far the exercise of such a power is strictly constitutional & correct in itself, & secondly how far it may affect the character of your administration and of those acting in it, & thirdly, whether it is not otherwise liable to objection, on the ground of policy. I shall be able to present to your consideration a few hints only on each of these propositions. The departments of the govt. being recognized by the constitution, have appropriate duties under it. As organs of the Executive will, they contain records of its transactions, and are in that sense checks on the Executive. If the Secretary at war leaves the seat of govt., (the ch. majistrate rema[in]ing there) and performs the duties of a general, the powers of the ch: majistrate, of the Secry at war, & genl., are all united in the latter. There ceases to be a check on Executive power as to military operations: indeed the Executive power as known to the constitution is destroyed. The whole is transfered from the Executive to the general at the head of the army. It is completely absorbed in hands where it is most dangerous. It may be said that the President is commander in chief; that the Secry at war is his organ as to military operations, and that he may allow him to go to the army, as being well inform’d in military affrs., & act for himself. I am inclin’d to think that the President, unless he takes the command of the army in person, acts, in directing its mov’ments, more as the Executive power, than as comr. in chief. What would become of the Secretary at war, if the President took command of the army, I do not know. I rather suppose however, that altho’ some of his powers would be transfer’d to the military staff, about the President, he would nevertheless, retain his appropriate constitutional character in all other respects. The adjutant genl would become the organ of the Executive, as to military operations, but the Secretary of war would be that for every other measure, indeed for all, except movments in the field. The dept. at war would therefore still form some check, on the Executive at the head of the army, but there wd. be none on the Secry. when he was general. On the 2d. head, the effect, it might have, on the credit of yr. admn. &c there can be little doubt. If there is cause to suspect the measure on constitutional grounds, that circumstance alone would wound its credit deeply. But a total yielding of the power, as would be inferr’d, & might and probably would be assum’d, for any act which would be performed, or order given, without the sanction of the ch: majistrate, would in the degree operate in that way, would affect it in another sense not less injuriously. It is impossible for the Secretary at war to go to the frontier, and perform the offices contemplated, without exercising all those of the military commander, especially. He would carry with him of course those of the war dept., for by the powers of that dept., would he act as general, & controul all military & other operations. And being forc’d, to act by circumstances, & take his measures by the day, he could have no order or sanction from the ch: majistrate. This would be seen by the public, & injure greatly the credit of the admn. If General Armstrong is the person most fit to command the armies, let him be appointed such; there will then be a check on him in the ch: majistrate, & in the war dept. Does he possess in a prominent degree the public confidence for that trust? do we not know the fact to be otherwise? that it was with difficulty he was appointed a Brigadier general, & still greater difficulty that he was appointed Secry at war?

“On the ground of policy, I have already made some remarks; but there are other objections to it on that ground. If he withdraws from the govt., & takes his station with the northern troops, what will become of every other army, that under Harrison, Pinckney, & Wilkinson, and of those stationd in other quarters especially along the coast? Who will direct the general movment, supervise their supplies, &c?

“I cannot close these remarks without adding something in relation to myself. Stimulated by a deep sense of the misfortunes of our country, as well as its disgrace by the surrender of Hull, the misconduct of Van Ranslear, & Smyth, and by the total want of character in the northern campaign, and dreading its effects, on your admn., on the republican party & cause, I have repeatedly offerd my service in a military station; not that I wished to take it by preference, to my present one, which to all others I prefer, but from a dread of the consequences above mentioned. I was willing to take the dept. of war permanently, if in leaving my present station, it was thought I might be more useful there than in a military command. I thought otherwise. What passed on this subject proves that I considerd the dept. of war, as a very different trust from that of the military commander. You appeard to think I might be more useful with the army, as did Mr Gallatin with whom I conferrd on the subject. I was convinc’d that the duties of Secretary of war, & military commander, were not only incompatible under our govt., but that they could not be exercised by the same person. I was equally satisfied that the Secretary at war could not perform, in his character as Secry., the duties of general of the army. The movment of the army must be regulated daily by events which occur daily, and the movment of all its parts, to be combind & simultaneous, must be under the controul of the general, in the field, not of the war dept. That this is the opinion of General Armstrong also, is evident, from his disposition to join the army. He knows that, here, he cannot direct the movments of the armies. He knows also that he could not be appointed the Lt. General, and that it is only in his present character as Secretary at war that he can expect to exercise the functions of general.

“As soon as General Armstrong took charge of the dept. at war, I thought I saw his plan, that is, after he had held it a few days. I saw distinctly that he intended to have no grade in the army, which should be competent to a general control of military operations; that he meant to keep the whole, in his own hands; that each operation should be distinct & separate; with distinct and separate objects, & of course to be directed by himself, not simply in the outline but detail. I anticipated mischief from this, because I knew, that the movment could not be directed from this place. I did not then anticipate the remedy which he had in view.

“I was animated by much zeal in offering my services in a military station, in favor of your administration & the cause of free govt., which I have long considerd intimately connected together; I flatterd myself that by my long services, & what the country knew of me, that I should give some impulse to the recruiting business, & other ways aid the cause. The misfortunes and dangers attending the cause, produc’d so much excitment, that my zeal may have exposed me to the appearance of repulse and disappointment, in the course things have taken. But as I well know that you have justly appreciated my motives, and that the public cannot fail to do it, should any imputation of the kind alluded to, be made, these are considerations which have no effect on my mind.

“Having seen into these things, from my little knowledge of military affairs, and the managment of the war dept. for some weeks, which gave me a knowledge of the state of things there, and forseeing some danger to your admn. as well as to the public interest, from the causes above stated, I have felt it a duty which I owe to you, as well as to the public, to communicate to you my sentiments on them. I have written them in much haste & without reserve. You will I am satisfied bestow on them the consideration they deserve.”

Monroe adds in a postscript: “… I cease to have any desire of a military station, having never wishd one, with a view to myself, & always under a conviction that I should incur risques & make sacrifices by it; it is in consequence of feeling it strongly my duty that I entirely relinquish the idea. These hints are intended to bring to your consideration the other circumstances to which they allude.”

It is unclear whether Monroe ever sent this letter to JM. Monroe docketed it, but JM did not; there is, therefore, no positive proof that JM saw it. Moreover, there are grounds for suspecting that Monroe might not have written this letter on 25 Feb. 1813. As Irving Brant has pointed out, it is possible to question whether by 24 Feb. 1813, barely two weeks after taking up his cabinet post, John Armstrong had already informed JM of his intention to travel to the northern frontier. Gallatin’s letter to JM of 22 Apr. 1813 indicates that the secretary of the treasury was not aware of Armstrong’s plans until mid-April, which casts doubt on Monroe’s claim that Armstrong had revealed them to JM almost two months earlier (see Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , 6:166, 204–6). Nor, despite his protestations to the contrary, does Monroe’s letter bear the hallmarks of a hastily written document penned in its entirety on the morning of 25 Feb. 1813 while he was also attending to a sick wife. It is for the most part carefully and clearly written, with few of the emendations and signs of second thoughts that often characterize his impromptu notes and letters, which suggests that he may have composed or finished it at a later date. Nevertheless, even if JM never saw this letter, it might reasonably be assumed that he eventually became acquainted, in one way or another, with its contents as Monroe became increasingly alarmed at Armstrong’s plans over the summer of 1813.

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