James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Henry Channing, 6 May 1814

From Henry Channing

New London, Connt. May 6th 1814.


I take the liberty of addressing a line to your Excellency, presuming that the deep interest I take in the interests of our country will be a sufficient apology.

Not having the honour of a personal acquaintance with either of the heads of departments, but having been mentioned by Com. Decater and Capt. Jones, in an application made to the Honble Secy of the Navy, for an appointment for my son as a midshipman on board the U. States, which was granted;1 I availed myself of this introduction, and wrote Jany 26th to the Secy of the Navy—“Private”—making a tender of my services—and suggesting the importance of receiving information respecting the state of things in this quarter.2 I wrote without consulting with any person—as I wished no knowledge or even suspicion should rest with any person, respecting my communicating with the government, as it might counteract my efforts to obtain a knowledg⟨e⟩ of characters and events. The letter I requested might be respectfully submitted to the President.

As I have not received any reply—I am left to conclude, either that my letter of Jany 26th was intercepted, though sent by mail from the office here—or that my communications were deemed obtrusive and unwelcome. I assure your Excellency that the purest motives urged my pen, and that it was not without reluctance I yeilded to the paramount claim of my country, demanding a statement of the imbecility and incompetence of Gen. Burbeck, as commander of this post. The depression of the supporters of our national government & of the war—with the insubordination and want of rigorous etiquette in our garrisons here, resulting from the inertness and neglect of this commanding officer, strongly impelled me, while I felt mortified at the cold interest respecting our military honour, as well as safety of the post, so clearly evinced, to write as I did.

I could state facts corroborative of my former communications on this subject, but, while delicacy forbids that I further obtrude, I cannot but cherish the hope that this post will not longer remain in a situation which mortifies and humbles the best friends to our common cause. I am, Very Respectfully, Yr Most Obedt Servt

Henry Channing3

RC (PHi: Daniel Parker Papers). Cover sheet bears John Armstrong’s note: “Who is parson Channing? a discontented federalist. Became a Unitarian—quarrelled with D. [Timothy Dwight] & other Orthodox clergymen—& with federalists, because they adhered to D. Is not to be trusted. He finds fault with Burbeck—but says nothing of others.”

1John M. Channing received a midshipman’s appointment on 9 Nov. 1813. He was dismissed from the navy by court-martial on 30 Aug. 1819 (Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy, description begins Edward W. Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900 (New York, 1901). description ends 109).

2In his 26 Jan. 1814 letter to Jones (DNA: RG 45, Misc. Letters Received), Channing wrote that he had retired from preaching due to “internal debility.” Though “ever considered as in the ranks of Washington federalists,” he believed that the spirit of the party had been violated by present-day Federalist attempts to “wink out of sight” reports of signal lights displayed from the vicinity of the New London harbor, and wished to aid the war effort (for the signal lights, see David Jones to JM, 31 Jan. 1814, and n. 3). The “superannuated” Brig. Gen. Henry Burbeck seemed disinterested in the war and was among those who discounted the signal light reports, Channing commented; furthermore, the commanders of New London’s two forts were inexperienced, which jeopardized the fleet in the harbor. Jones redirected the letter to JM with the note: “Com. Decatur speaks in very respectful terms of the writer as a patriotic & a worthy man.”

3Henry Channing (ca. 1760–1840), a 1781 graduate of Yale College, became pastor of the New London Congregational Church in 1787. The membership of the congregation increased and several of Channing’s sermons were published, but he was dismissed at his own request in 1806, evidently having anticipated that the development of his Unitarian beliefs, though not expressed in preaching, would render such an outcome inevitable. From 1808 to 1811 he pastored the Congregational Church in Canandaigua, New York. As a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1817 and 1818, he advocated church disestablishment to the chagrin of his former religious colleagues. He spent his last years in New York, where he died of apoplexy (Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, 4:183–86).

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