James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Isaac Shelby, 15 May 1814

From Isaac Shelby

Frankfort May 15th. 1814

Dear Sir

The interest which I feel for the prosperity of our beloved country at all times, but especially, in the common cause in which she is at present engaged, will I flatter my self be a sufficient appology for addressing you this letter. The motives which impels me arises from considerations of public good, and are unknown to the Gentleman who is the subject of the letter.

It is not my intention to eulogise General Harrison. He is not in need of that aid, his merits are too conspicuous not to be observed. Yet it is my intention to express to you with candour my opinion of the General founded on personal observation.

A rumour has reached this State which from the public prints appears to be beleived. That the Commanding General of the Northern Army may be removed from that Command. This circumstance has induced me to reflect on the Subject and to give a decided preference in my own mind to Major General Harrison ⟨as⟩ a Successor. Having served a Campaign with General Harrison by which I have been able to form some opinion of his military talents and capacity to command I feel no hesitation to declare to you, that I beleive him to be one of the first military Characters I ever knew, and in addition to this he is capable of making greater personal exertions than any officer with whom I have ever served.

I have no doubt but it will hereafter be found that the Command of the Northwestern Army, & the various duties attached to it, has been one of the most arduous & difficult tasks ever assigned to any officer in the United States yet he Surmounted all.

Impressed with the Conviction that General Harrison is fully Addequate to the Command of the Northern Army should a change take place in that division I have ventured thus freely to state my opinion of him, That he is a consummate General & would fill that Station with ability & honour—and that if on the other hand any arrangment should take place in the war department which may produce the Resignation of General Harrison it will be a misfortune which our Country will have cause to lament. His appointment to the Command of the Northern Army would be highly gratifying to the wishes of the western people except some who may perhaps be governed by sinister views.

I confess the first impressions made upon my mind when informed of the Defeat of Colo. Dudleys ridgmen on the 5th. May last, was unfavourable to Genl Harrisons plans, but on correct information and a knowledge of his whole plans I have no doubt but they were well concerted, and might with certainty have been executed had his orders been strictly obeyed. I mention this Subject because Mr. H. Clay informed me that he had shewn you my letter stating the impressions which that affair had first made upon my mind, on information that was not correct.1

Hoping that my opinion of this meritorious officer will not be unacceptable to you I have candidly expressed it and hope the appology Stated in the preceeding part of this letter will justify the liberty taken of intruding opinions unsolicited. I have the honour to be most Respectfully Your Obedient Servant

Isaac Shelby

RC (NHi); Tr, two copies (NN). RC docketed by JM. First Tr in John C. Payne’s hand, with his note: “Shelby Isaac / 15. May 1814. / original sent to C. S. Todd, his son in ⟨la⟩w, May 1836.” Second Tr, in an unidentified hand, bears a nearly identical note. Charles Stewart Todd, the husband of Letitia Shelby and son of Dolley Madison’s brother-in-law Thomas Todd, wrote to Edward Coles on 22 Mar. 1836 (ICHi) requesting a copy of Shelby’s letter for the purpose of refuting the account of William Henry Harrison’s resignation that Todd anticipated would soon be published in the second volume of John Armstrong’s Notices of the War of 1812. Todd also asked Coles to corroborate Todd’s memory of a conversation held “about the close of the last War” in which Coles had stated that “at the time [Harrison’s] resignation was forwarded, the President was at his seat in Virga.; that Armstrong without his previous consent had accepted his resignation and that the President regretted not having recd. Govr. Shelby’s letter sooner, as in that event, the services of Genl. Harrison would have been retained in the ensuing campaign—but this was defeated by the unqualified resignation having been accepted without the President being aware of the state of things between Armstrong & Harrison subsequently made known in Govr. Shelby’s letter.” Todd himself, serving as Harrison’s assistant inspector general in May 1814, had written to Shelby to alert him to this “state of things” (Quimby, U.S. Army in the War of 1812, 2:488) and, in 1836, believed that Armstrong might “attempt to shew that he did not drive [Harrison] out of service in the manner above stated.” Coles forwarded Todd’s letter to JM (Coles to JM, 2 Apr. 1836, ICHi), who commented in reply that Shelby’s letter “was probably, not received before the resignation of Genl. Harrison had been acted on,” but declined to provide further information (JM to Coles, 10 Apr. 1836, NjP: Coles Papers). JM subsequently requested that Shelby’s letter be sent to Todd (John C. Payne to Coles, 10 May 1836, NjP: Edward Coles Papers).

1Shelby to Henry Clay, 16 May 1813, PJM-PS, description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (7 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends 6:316–17.

Index Entries