Sunday, February 16, 2020

The President in Peril

James Monroe (1758–1831)
From The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence

“A boxing match, or another bloody nose for John Bull,” 1813, political cartoon by engraver William Charles (1776–1820). The artist gloats over naval losses suffered by England early in the War of 1812, in particular the defeat of the warship Boxer by the American frigate Enterprise in September 1813. King George III stands at left, his nose bleeding and eye blackened, saying, “Stop . . . Brother Jonathan, or I shall fall with the loss of blood — I thought to have been too heavy for you — But I must acknowledge your superior skill — Two blows to my one! — And so well directed too! Mercy, mercy on me, how does this happen!!!” On the right, James Madison says, “Ha-Ah Johnny! you thought yourself a ‘Boxer’ did you! — I'll let you know we are an ‘Enterprize’ing Nation. and ready to meet you with equal force any day.” Brother Jonathan was an imaginary character signifying the United States; he was supplanted by Uncle Sam after the Civil War. Similarly, John Bull was a cartoon representation of England. Image and caption details courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The pale and delicate James Madison—“Little Jemmy” to his detractors—was never an imposing figure. He was five foot four, weighed only a hundred pounds, and was prey to worry and depression. When Washington Irving met Madison in January 1811, he remarked in a letter to a friend: “Ah! poor Jemmy!—he is but a withered little apple-john.”

Madison’s near-fatal illness of the summer of 1813, possibly mosquito-borne malaria from the wetlands in and around Washington, occurred at the height of that year’s congressional activity and military campaigning in the War of 1812. His maladies further compromised his image as a capable chief executive and strengthened the resistance of the anti-war Federalists. Thomas P. Grosvenor, a freshman Congressman from New York, prayed for a speedy end to the President, that he might “soon appear at the bar of Immortal Justice” and be judged for his “bloody crime.” Major John Lovett, wounded the previous year at the Battle of Queenston Heights and also a New Yorker newly elected to Congress, wished good riddance to both him and his vice president, the “scant-patterned old skeleton of a French barber” Elbridge Gerry, then sixty-nine and struggling back from a stroke.

While the President and Vice President were in ill health, the War of 1812 raged on. American forces lost two crucial battles that month in a series of conflicts that would eventually leave American forts along the Niagara River in British hands and civilian settlements from Youngstown to Buffalo in ruins. In addition, the British navy was expanding its blockade to include all major ports of the middle and southern states, crippling both the economy and the treasury.

On the political front, things weren’t any better for the President. The anti-war Federalists and their allies in the Democratic-Republican Party had increased their numbers in the previous year’s elections, and they resisted Madison’s proposals for new trade restrictions, militia reform, and the enlistment of minors. Every attempt to raise taxes for the war effort strained the fraying Republican front. Diplomatic appointments were blocked, with confirmation hearings dissolving into what Madison biographer Ralph Ketchum has described as “weeks of bitter, futile debate over the origins and causes of the war.” Speaker of the House John C. Calhoun decried, “Party sperit is more violent than I ever knew.” So violent, in fact, that Calhoun himself nearly engaged in pistol duels with Grosvenor, who stridently contested every measure, and with William Gaston of North Carolina, his nemesis on the Ways and Means Committee.

Reprinted below is the brief letter Secretary of State James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson about Madison’s illness—the next President writing to the previous President about the current President, as it were. He lamented how opponents were already planning for Madison’s death and how they were capitalizing on his illness by blocking the diplomatic appointments of Jonathan Russell to Sweden and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin to the Russian peace mission. Fortunately, Madison’s fever broke a few days later; on July 2 his wife, Dolley, wrote to a cousin that “for the last three days his fever has been so slight as to permit him to take bark every hour and with good effect.” (The bark of the cinchona tree was thought effective for fevers—and, in fact, it does contain quinine, which is effective for treating malaria.) After hearing of Madison’s incipient recovery, former President John Adams, who had supported his reelection, wrote empathetically to a friend, “His agitations of mind and incessant labours, I know by sad experience must be too great for any but the most robust Constitutions.”

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We reproduce this week’s selection in its entirety below, followed by notes explaining the most important of its many references. You may also download the letter as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Washington June 28th 1813

Dear Sir,—From the date of my last letter to you the President has been ill of a bilious fever; of that kind called the remittent. It has perhaps never left him, even for an hour, and occasionally simptoms have been unfavorable. This is I think the 15th day. Elzey of this place, & Shoaff of Annapolis, with Dr. Tucker, attend him. They think he will recover. The first mention’d I have just seen, who reports that he had a good night, & is in a state to take the bark, which indeed he has done on his best day, for nearly a week. I shall see him before I seal this, & note any change, should there be any, from the above statement.

The federalists aided by the malcontents have done, and are doing, all the mischief that they can. The nominations to Russia, & Sweden, (the latter made on an intimation that the Crown prince would contribute his good offices to promote peace on fair conditions) they have embarrassed, to the utmost of their power. The active partizans are King, Giles and (as respects the first nomination) S. Smith. Leib, German and Gilman, are habitually in that interest, active, but useful to their party by their votes only. The two members from Louisiana, Gailliard, Stone, Anderson, & Bledsoe, are added to that corps, on those questions. They have carried a vote 20. to 14. that the appointment of Mr. Gallatin to the Russian mission, is incompatable, with his place in the treasury, & appointed a committee, to communicate the resolution to the President. They have appointed another committee to confer with him on the nomination to Sweden. The object is to usurp the Executive power in the hands of a faction in the Senate. To this, several mention’d are not parties, particularly the four last. A committee of the Senate ought to confer with a committee of the President, that is a head of a dept. and not with the ch: Majistrate, for in the latter case a committee of that house is equal to the Executive. To break the measure, & relieve the President from the pressure, at a time when so little able to bear it, indeed when no pressure whatever should be made on him, I wrote the committee on the nomination to Sweden, that I was instructed by him to meet them, to give all the information they might desire of the Executive. They declin’d the interview. I had intended to pursue the same course respecting the other nomination, had I succeeded in this. Failing, I have declined it. The result is withheld from the President. These men have begun, to make calculations, & plans, founded on the presum’d death of the President & Vice-President, & it has been suggested to me that Giles, is thought of to take the place of the President of the Senate, as soon as the Vice President withdraws.

Genl. Dearborn is dangerously ill, & Genl. Lewis doing little. Hampton has gone on to that quarter, but I fear on an inactive command. Genl. Wilkinson is expected soon, but I do not know what station will be assign’d him. The idea of a comr. in Ch: is in circulation, proceeding from the War dept., as I have reason to believe. If so, it will probably take a more decisive form, when things are prepar’d for it. A security for his (the Secys.) advancement to that station, is I presume the preparation desir’d.

Your friend, etc.


Portions of the above introduction and the notes below were adapted from material in The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence, edited by Donald R. Hickey.

Notes: Arnold Elzey was Madison’s primary physician in Washington during his Presidency; John Thomas Shaaf and Thomas Tudor Tucker (who was U.S. Treasurer from 1801 to 1828), both prominent physicians, also attended Madison during his illness.

Among Monroe’s list of various “partizans” in Congress opposing the diplomatic appointment of Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, William Branch Giles, Senator from Virginia, should be singled out. A member of Madison’s own party who opposed the administration’s war policies, Giles is suggested later in the letter as someone who might be chosen by Madison’s opponents as President pro tempore of the Senate, thus becoming next in line to the Presidency should Madison and Gerry both die.

Monroe also refers to General Henry Dearborn, whose illnesses increasingly aggravated his inability to forcefully press early advantages gained in the Niagara River frontier, and Major General Morgan Lewis, who was in command of the Canadian outpost Fort George, captured by the Americans a month earlier. Madison sent Major Generals Wade Hampton and James Wilkinson to replace Dearborn, with Wilkinson in command of American forces for the campaign against Canada and Hampton in a subordinate role. The two generals had despised each other for more than five years, and their feud was a contributing factor to the collapse of the American plan to attack Montreal. In the letter’s closing, Monroe mentions (the Secys.), referring to John Armstrong Jr., who had been appointed Secretary of War despite the opposition of Monroe and Gallatin. Monroe’s insinuation was that Armstrong wanted to become commander in chief of the war effort.

Monroe's letter was originally published in The Writings of James Monroe, vol. 5 (1901).

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