Introduction: To Meet With Frankness and Conciliation
In August, 1814, eight men came to the ancient Flemish city of Ghent to negotiate the end of a war being fought on a far away continent. They numbered three Britons and five Americans, for these were the two belligerent nations. The conflict had started on June 18, 1812 when President James Madison signed a war proclamation against Great Britain. Two years later, neither side could claim that the war went well.
The British had never wanted this war. Early summer of 1812 had been a period of great crisis. War with America only worsened matters. Since 1805 Britain had been locked in a titanic struggle of empires for mastery of Europe. So far it had been unable to stop France’s Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte from turning most of the continent into his personal fiefdom. For the past four years Viscount Wellington’s army had been engaged in a bloody campaign to prevent France’s conquest of the entire Iberian Peninsula. In June of 1812, as the United States sent troops marching toward Canada, this army finally prevailed in Portugal. Pushing into the heart of Spain, the British drove the French before them. That, however, was about the only good news Lord Liverpool’s government could savour. For France’s setbacks there could be attributed directly to Napoleon’s failure to reinforce his Iberian army. While Wellington besieged one French bastion after another in Spain, Napoleon assembled the 530,000-strong Grande Armeé, eyes turned east toward Russia. Once the French boot heel rested on Russia, the little Corsican would wheel about and send Wellington, a general he considered timidly cautious, reeling right off the continent. British spies had reported the existence of Napoleon’s massive juggernaut and its purpose. Odds that Tsar Alexander’s antiquated army could stave off the French were considered poor. If Russia fell, Britain would face Napoleon alone.
The grinding war had reduced Britain’s economy to shambles. Loss of European trade and the war’s ever escalating costs had plunged the nation into a depression and imposed severe food shortages. Starvation had threatened during the past winter and there was unrest in the streets. Ireland remained a festering sore—conditions there worse than elsewhere in the British Isles. The cost of sustaining Wellington’s Peninsular Army placed enormous strain on the government’s coffers. The Admiralty equally demanded more resources to ensure the world’s largest fleet continued to master the seas so essential to retaining the empire that also served as Britain’s lifeline for food and other vital imports. On May 11, an added crisis had arisen when Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. A reluctant Lord Liverpool, then Secretary for War and the Colonies, accepted the Prince Regent’s pleas to lead the government on June 8. The Prince had become de facto sovereign on February 5, 1811 when his father, King George III, was declared unfit to rule due to insanity. Faced with a glut of foreign and domestic crises and frantically trying to ensure a stable government to effectively deal with them, Liverpool had focused for the rest of the month on forming a workable cabinet. Most pressing were matters foreign and to address these Liverpool decided not only to retain Viscount Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary but also to make him leader of the House of Commons, a position that Perceval had previously held. Believing it imperative that this war time government had the support of the country and not just the House of Commons, Liverpool announced he would dissolve parliament at the end of the September and hold a general election. With all these events swirling about Liverpool and his cabinet, Britain’s government needed nothing less in the summer of 1812 than another war on the other side of the Atlantic. But they had also been so distracted by matters domestic and European that attempts to head off such a war were half-hearted and badly bungled.
With war, Britain had defended British North America during that summer and fall with sufficient zeal to thwart America’s attempts at conquest. Somewhat to the surprise of British colonial officials there and to the consternation of the Americans almost all Canadians remained loyal to the Crown. In both Upper and Lower Canada the militia stepped forward to strengthen the thin ranks of the British redcoats. Local knowledge of battlegrounds and the ability of these farmers, fur traders, small businessmen, and shopkeepers turned soldiers to wage irregular war gave the defenders of British North America a much needed edge over the numerically superior American forces.
The Americans had assumed the colonists would welcome the chance to throw off the British yoke—particularly the French Canadian majority in Lower Canada, themselves conquered by Britain less than 45 years previously. In Upper Canada they had thought the many recent immigrants from the United States would welcome the opportunity to raise the American flag over their new homeland. But neither French Canadians nor American immigrants had heeded their calls to rise against the British. That refusal ultimately doomed all the attempted invasions.
Not only Canadian loyalty to the Crown dashed the American dream of an easy conquest of British North America. Most Indian nations, too, cast their lot in with Britain. Led by the charismatic warrior chief Tecumseh, the leaders of the powerful Indian confederacy on the western frontiers believed the best way to preserve their nations, their lands, and their way of life from the avarice of American settlers determined to expand the boundaries of the United States ever westward was through military alliance with Britain.
By the summer of 1814, the darkest days of the North American war appeared to have passed for British North America. Although supremacy of the Great Lakes had been forfeited, Britain’s armies in Canada had moved from the defence to the offence—taking the war for the first time in strength onto American soil. Along the U.S. coastline, amphibious forces carried out major landings and the naval blockade of the ports had crippled America’s economy.
Heartening as this news was it paled when compared to the great events unfolding in Europe. On April 11, Napoleon had abdicated and accepted exile to Elba. This after Paris surrendered on March 31, following a string of decisive battles that crushed the French army and delivered a vast Allied army before the city’s gates. With an armistice in Europe, the large British army serving there was freed for deployment to North America. By early summer, about 10,000 reinforcements—a flood compared to the paltry trickles of earlier years—had sailed from Europe to North America. It was the influx of these troops that made it possible for Britain to seize the initiative. But even as these reinforcements had disembarked in Halifax, Britain’s government was loath to continue what clearly promised to be a long, harsh campaign to defeat the United States. Lord Liverpool and his cabinet were as weary of war as were His Majesty’s lesser subjects. And although the European war was at an end, the pressing business of dismembering the empire Napoleon had won at the point of a bayonet and dividing the spoils amongst the victors remained. Empires and nations had to be reformed or created on the spot to fill power vacuums left by the French dismemberment of the old order, new boundaries needed to be drawn. Measures also had to be taken to permanently hobble France. This was the task which required the full attention of Liverpool and Castlereagh. In Vienna, the European statesmen were gathering for the congress that would settle these matters and impose the terms of surrender on France. This continuing conflict in North America was but an unfortunate distraction, a pointless war fought over issues rendered moot by the developments in Europe. Accepting, of course, that the causes America claimed had driven it to arms had ever been genuine and not mere pretexts to mask less honourable ambitions. Whatever might be the truth on that front, a negotiated peace that concluded the war quickly was desired. So long, that is, as the terms of the treaty guaranteed the security of Canada and the Frontier Indians against future American aggression. With this intent in mind, a long process of invitation and discussion finally resulted in three British commissioners proceeding across the English Channel to Ghent. They were his Lordship Vice-Admiral James Gambier, Undersecretary to the Secretary for War and Colonies Henry Goulburn, and William Adams, a lawyer expert in maritime and naval law. In their diplomatic pouch they carried extensive instructions as to the treaty terms to be proposed to their American counterparts that strictly limited their ability to make independent decisions.
For their part, the American commissioners had trickled into Ghent by ones and twos and by various circuitous routes of travel for they came not only from the United States but also from Russia and other parts of Europe. They were U.S. Minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams; Albert Gallatin, who, until recently had been Madison’s Secretary of the Treasury; Speaker of the House of Representatives and Kentucky Republican Henry Clay; Federalist Senator from Delaware James Asheton Bayard; and Johnathon Russell, the former chargé d’affaires in London and newly-appointed U.S. minister to Sweden. While fancying themselves as tethered to a longer leash than their British counterparts and consequently able to negotiate more independently, their instructions were as extensive and precisely stated as the British briefs. The Americans were to arrange an amity that retained American honour and required no surrender of either land or the right to continued expansion without threat of interference from Great Britain. In effect, the American government sought a treaty that returned North America to the status quo that had existed before 1812 and would accept no penalty for its resort to arms.
Each side distrusted the other. The British suspected that the American government was not sincere and would treat for peace only if it could win by diplomacy what it had failed to gain through war. Among the Americans there was lurking suspicion that Britain sought to impose terms that would unravel the Union and re-establish dominance of king and crown over North America. Both believed that they were the aggrieved party, the one forced into this war by the other.
A major problem that the commissioners must resolve was the actual manner of negotiation. Little precedent existed in European diplomacy to end a war where neither combatant had either vanquished the other or was on the verge of inevitably doing so. Nor were the belligerents prepared to declare an armistice until the negotiations either failed or culminated in an acceptable treaty. While the commissioners talked blood would continue to flow in North America. This fact added urgency to matters, but also rendered the discussions additionally uncertain. It was entirely possible that battles yet to be fought could decide the war before the commissioners reached acceptable terms.
Normally European treaties were negotiated—often with mediation provided by a neutral third party nation—merely to determine the penalties an already defeated nation must accept to end hostilities. A province or two would be carved away as spoils to the victor, indemnities paid for the costs of prosecuting the war. Surrender of a colony might assuage the thirst of the winner for further gain, and the exile of a ruler sometimes made way for a more acceptable sovereign. Neither the British nor the American commissioners were coming to the other with cap in hand, so they would have to steer a course through largely uncharted diplomatic waters.
For all these reasons, and despite a fervent desire by both the United States and Great Britain to bring this unpopular war to an end, their commissioners arrived in Ghent little expecting success. Yet the prospect of failure dismayed them and proved a source of great anxiety for both themselves and their respective governments. Should the negotiations fail, the war would surely drag on for years, with its eventual outcome impossible to predict.
Castlereagh, in a letter given to the British commissioners close to their departure from London, urged them “to assure the American commissioners that the British Government, whatever sense it may entertain of the causes of the rupture, is sincerely desirous of a permanent adjustment of all differences, and that this desire is not abated by the successful termination of the war in Europe; and that, with this view, you are authorized to meet with frankness and conciliation whatever propositions the American negotiators may be prepared to offer, for terminating the war which has been declared by their Government.”
The American government was less inclined to have its commissioners extend olive branches. Meeting in President Madison’s office in early August, Secretary of State James Monroe insisted that the British must accept certain conditions or there would be no peace. The room was like an oven, both men sweating heavily in the humid Washington heat. Were it not for the direness of the war and the urgent need for a negotiated peace, neither man would have still been in the capital. Instead they would have sought the refuge of their respective Virginian country estates and the business of government would have languished until the cooler fall temperatures rendered the city again habitable. Monroe’s desire to end the war almost matched that of his master, but he counselled a firm stance. Ultimately, no matter the just causes that had driven them to the declaration, the war was of America’s making. To come away at the end with nothing gained would spell political ruin for both men, be disastrous for the Republican Party, and dishonour the nation. Looking across the desk at the diminutive figure of the man he had served so loyally during these hard years of conflict, Monroe counselled a strong stance. There was no reason, he insisted, that although America could not prevail on the battlefield it could not win an honourable peace through negotiation. The dream of annexing British North America might even still be achieved if the British could be persuaded that it was in their ultimate interest to be rid of this costly to maintain colony. Madison thought Monroe’s optimism misplaced, but he recognized how essential an honourable peace—one that yielded America a secure base for future westward expansion—was essential. The five men in Ghent must win this.
Accordingly, on August 11, Monroe penned detailed instructions to the negotiators. “If Great Britain, does not terminate the war on the conditions you are authorized to adopt,” the war must continue. “The conflict may be severe, but it will be borne with firmness, and as we confidently believe, be attended with success.” After setting out several minor compromises that he was willing to offer the British, Monroe declared: “This government can go no farther, because it will make no sacrifice of the rights or honour of the nation.
Part One: Clay’s War
Chapter One: A Republican of the First Fire: August 1812
Among the commissioners gathered in Ghent that August was a man, who more than any other, could claim responsibility for leading America into war. Had Henry Clay not been elected to the Twelfth Congress of the House of Representatives, there were many who believed that its 142 members would have failed to muster the collective resolve to pass the war bill. And had Clay not been there to privately stiffen the president’s backbone, Madison might not have affixed his signature to it.
On the day America went to war Clay was just thirty-five, yet he was undeniably the nation’s most powerful congressman. When the House went into session on November 4, 1811, the young Kentuckian was immediately elected as its Speaker in a two-to-one first ballot vote. Selection of a speaker on the first day was unprecedented. It was not unusual for a month or more to pass between when various factions advanced their preferred candidates and the election. The interim was a time of long speeches by supporters who extolled a candidate’s virtues and talents while detractors responded with equally lengthy bouts of rhetoric, redolent in politely veiled criticism, which chipped blocks out from under the candidate’s feet. In stuffy, overheated rooms powerful men gathered for dinners, drinks, cigars, and hands of cards. It was here that negotiations were conducted, deals made. Outstanding debts were called in, new credits extended.
This time there had been none of that. Surprising on the surface, for the Twelfth Congress marked Clay’s congressional debut. But Clay was no political neophyte. At the age of twenty-six, just six years after coming to Kentucky from Virginia to practice law, he had thrown himself onto that state’s brawling political stage. In 1803, after demonstrating both masterful oration and, on at least one occasion, keen marksmanship with a long Kentucky rifle, he was elected to the state legislature.
Although the son of a Baptist minister, he was neither conservative nor outwardly religious. He loved cards, drinking, and women equally and the latter usually considered him both attractive and blessed with a fine wit. The fifth of nine children, Clay was only four when his father died. Young Henry’s formal education consisted of three years in Hanover’s one-room school, which stood near the courthouse in front of which local orators gathered on the green to hold forth on local and national politics. Early on the boy became infected by a passion for what was commonly referred to as declamation. At best an indifferent student, he proved a keen reader, eagerly reciting the text aloud to hone his public speaking skills.
Through a series of carefully arranged introductions to some of Virginia’s most powerful political figures the adolescent Clay was put That Clay might have a future in the law and even politics was recognized early by his stepfather, who introduced the lad to Hanover’s Virginia Assembly delegate, Colonel Thomas Tinsley. Suitably impressed, the politician convinced his brother, Peter Tinsley, the Clerk of the Virginia High Court of the Chancery in Richmond to accept him as an assistant. Clay was now fourteen and his parents, infected by western fever, had sold up and headed for Kentucky.
The adolescent Clay demonstrated a shrewd aptitude for gaining the patronage of powerful men. Hanover’s Virginia Assembly delegate, Colonel Thomas Tinsley, his brother, Peter Tinsley, the Clerk of the Virginia High Court of the Chancery in Richmond, Chancellor George Wythe, and Virginia’s Attorney General Robert Brooke all took him under wing and advance the lad along a course concluded with his being called to the Virginia bar at age twenty.
But Clay never practiced in that state. Instead, he saddled up and rode to the new frontier in Kentucky. As a boy, Clay had been lean and gangly, with overly long arms. Now, he was roughly handsome. Tousled hair so blond it was almost white and blue eyes that could, by turns of light, appear either pale and grey or as vividly blue as a robin’s egg. He stood six-feet tall and across his wide, craggy face emotions were always writ large. Some described his face as “a compromise put together by a committee,” particularly because of the width of his mouth, which others claimed gave him unfair advantage in that he could “completely…rest one side of it while the other was on active duty.”
A dandy, Clay took great care about his appearance and dress. His linen cravat was always carefully knotted, cloth breeches fashionably cut, yellow-top boots polished to a shine, high-collared, eagle-buttoned, blue cutaway coat freshly brushed. On March 20, 1798, he was appointed to Lexington’s bar and within a few months established his social position by marrying Lucretia Hart, daughter of a wealthy Lexington businessman. While the marriage was opportune, he was by all accounts devoted.
Clay pursued a legal career out of financial necessity, but politics was his passion. The local press soon acclaimed his Lexington green speeches. He declaimed for abolition of slavery and carved out his ground as a radical Republican. Clay criticized President John Adams for treading on state and individual rights, for pandering to Britain, and for seeking to build a standing army when everyone knew militias were all the defence America needed. He praised revolutionary France and when Napoleon gained power lauded him as well for taking on the tyrant King George III and the aristocratic hegemony of Britain’s government.
In 1803 he was elected to the state legislature and three years later the Kentucky legislature sent him to serve out the remaining year of the term of a federal senator who had resigned. Despite being four months younger than the thirty years required by the Constitution for holding such a seat, Clay was sworn in on December 29. Although most of the other thirty-three statesmen representing the Union’s seventeen states were so-called Fathers of the Revolution, Clay showed them no deference. He quickly shifted focus from the parochial matters of Kentucky to those of national interest, even as he was disenchanted to find that the Senate was a forum where “solemn stillness” rather than energetic debate reigned.
Outwardly the Senate itself was a rather grand place with a semi-circular chamber elegantly appointed with lush carpeted floors, scarlet leather cushioned chairs for the senators’ backsides, various wall maps to help them locate places that arose in debates, and a small portrait of George Washington dwarfed by the full-length portraits of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI that inexplicably dominated the room. However, the Senate roof leaked, so the place had about it a lingering cellar-like dampness. With a high, rotting ceiling overhead and equally deteriorating walls directly behind the senators, some displayed a “state of fear & uneasiness, least the wall, which is thick & high, should fall on them & either maim or kill them.”
Clay waded into what passed for debate with a vigour quickly noted by his fellow senators. Most of the older members were nonplussed that this youth, “in the plenitude of puppyism,” as Connecticut’s venerable Uriah Tracy mockingly depicted him during one of many debates where the two men crossed swords, dared show such temerity in their august midst. A few were quietly impressed. John Quincy Adams, himself of just forty years, found Clay “quite a young man—an orator—and a republican of the first fire.” New Hampshire Federalist William Plumer thought Clay an “easy, graceful [and] eloquent speaker,” but also prone to being overly forceful and too often bitterly sarcastic.
Clay, the upstart young Republican, was soon debating in a more congenial manner than in his duels with Tracy with James Asheton Bayard, the distinguished Federalist senator from Delaware who would eventually become the Kentuckian’s fellow negotiator in Ghent. Politically the two men were diametrically opposed, particularly with regard to relations between America and Great Britain. Whereas Clay proposed war at the first offence, the Delaware senator preferred to turn the other cheek while simultaneously seeking a negotiated accommodation. But for all their political differences, Clay and Bayard shared some background commonalities. Both had lost their fathers at the age of four, both were lawyers by training and fiercely political by inclination, both were tall and handsome. Had it not been for their divergent political views the might have been friends. Instead, they treated each other with respect.
Born on July 28, 1767 and raised in the privileged family of an uncle, Bayard had graduated from Princeton in 1784. Four years later he was admitted to the bar, briefly practicing in Philadelphia before moving to Wilmington, Delaware to establish a practice. On February 11, 1795 Bayard married Ann Basset, the daughter of the state’s chief justice. Two years later he was elected to the House of Representatives and held a seat there until March, 1803. In January 1805 he took a seat in the U.S. Senate.
By the time of his senate appointment Bayard was undisputed leader of the southern Federalists, who hove a more conservative path than their New England counterparts. Bayard was a moderate, always willing to work toward compromise to ensure a stable federal government. One observer described his attitude as that “of a man who, believing his own party to be possessed of superior political wisdom, is nevertheless willing to do whatever lies in his power for the country as a whole, even though it must be done through the opposing party.” Where many congressmen and senators were notoriously partisan, susceptible to influence and outright graft, Bayard was rigorously ethical and moral.
Not that Bayard was a man of pure reason and little passion. On May 5, 1800 a heated debate on the Congress floor erupted between Bayard and Christopher Champlin, the representative for Rhode Island, when the latter moved to redraft a bill setting commissions paid to port collectors so that the percentages allowed collectors in Wilmington and New London could be reduced. Bayard saw the move as a personal swipe at those particular port collectors—the one in Wilmington was a friend. Two days after the exchange, the two congressmen met in Philadelphia to settle the matter with pistols. It was a grim day, raining heavily, so the duel occurred in an abandoned shed next to a stone bridge. Champlin and Bayard paced off the agreed distance, turned and fired. Bayard’s ball ripped open Champlin’s cheek while his opponent’s struck his thigh.
Duelling being illegal in Pennsylvania both men and their seconds were forced to flee the state’s jurisdiction or face charges. Bayard wrote his cousin, Andrew Bayard, a couple weeks later to say that the “escape I made from the city was quite lucky, but I do not like the idea of perpetual banishment which the affair is likely to occasion.” He asked the cousin to enquire of the state governor whether it would be possible for him to grant everyone involved clemency from prosecution.
Perhaps this incident served even more to incline Bayard toward caution, for by the time Clay took his seat in the Senate his debating style was noted as the exact opposite of the young senator’s. Plumer considered Clay more emotional and enthusiastic while Bayard’s style was that of the “precise reasoner.”
Clay’s first foray into Washington politics was short, the senatorial term he filled expired after just one session.
Back in Kentucky, Clay was re-elected to its legislature and appointed speaker. Rather than adhering to tradition by confining himself to maintaining order and ensuring that legislative procedure was upheld Clay never hesitated to step down from the chair in order to wade into the midst of debates—a practice he would continue as speaker of the House of Representatives. During one such foray, an observer wrote, that “every muscle of [Clay’s] face was in motion; his whole body seemed agitated, as if every part were instinct with a separate life; and his small, white hand, with its blue veins apparently distended, almost to bursting, moved gracefully, but with all the energy of rapid and vehement gesture. The appearance of the speaker seemed that of a pure intellect, wrought up to its mightiest energies, and brightly glowing through the thin and transparent veil of flesh that enrobed it.”
In December, 1808, Clay brought before the legislature a series of resolutions intended to support President Thomas Jefferson’s responses to maritime measures taken by Great Britain to bar America and other neutral nations from conducting trade with France. Under these measures the Royal Navy had been authorized by House of Commons’ Orders-in-Council to seize neutral merchant ships apprehended while attempting to enter any French empire port. Increasingly outraged by Britain’s apparent disregard for America’s sovereignty, Clay sought legislative approval of Jefferson’s embargo, whereby the United States would voluntarily cease conducting any trade with either Britain or France. He also called upon it to condemn Britain’s Orders-in-Council and to pledge that Kentucky would back the U.S. government in any measure considered necessary to uphold its rights.
Humphrey Marshall was the only legislator to oppose the resolutions. On January 4, 1809, the two locked in a heated verbal joust that ended with Marshall calling Clay a liar. A fistfight would have ensued had others not intervened to restrain the two. When Clay calmed down, he apologized to the house and then poured more fire on the coals by stating he would never have resorted to blows if Marshall had been a man of honour. Marshall snapped back that Clay’s apology was that of “a poltroon!” He then issued a challenge, accepted by Clay in a formal note that same evening.
On the early morning of January 19, the two men, their seconds and appointed surgeons, gathered on a meadow covered in frost-hardened Kentucky bluegrass next to the Ohio River near Louisville. Seconds checked pistols and confirmed the rules of engagement. Then Clay and Marshall faced each other from a distance of ten paces with pistols hanging down by their sides. One of the seconds called out, “Attention! Fire!” Two pistols cracked and Marshall was staggered when Clay’s ball grazed his stomach. Both took aim again, but Clay’s pistol failed to fire and Marshall missed again. Marshall reloaded more quickly and snapped off a slug that tore a gash out of Clay’s thigh. Staggered by the impact, Clay’s third round went wild. Although Clay demanded that the duel continue the seconds hastily announced that his wound meant that the men now fought an unequal contest and that honour had been served.
The duel only furthered Clay’s reputation throughout Kentucky, so it was hardly a surprise when he was once again selected to serve out the term of federal senator upon completion of his sixth term in the state’s legislature. Clay rode toward Washington in January, 1810 with a mind preoccupied with one overriding concern. The time had come, he believed, when the United States must make war on Great Britain.
When Clay’s tired mount plodded up the muddy streets, past the many half-built houses that had stood abandoned since the collapse of Washington’s building boom three years previous, there was little about the capital to inspire a man into believing this was the seat of power of a nation capable of challenging one or both of the world’s most powerful empires. Although still growing rapidly, Washington’s population was just 5,650. Large stretches of farm land and small woods separated tiny clusters of buildings. The capital of the United States was no more akin to London, the world’s most populace and powerful commercial centre, or Paris in all its elegant opulence than was America’s economy a challenge to that of Britain and France. Except in its slightly larger size and the presence of a handful of modest government buildings, Washington more closely resembled Clay’s Lexington than the great European cities.
This was true for all of America’s burgeoning cities. Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia were older and larger than Washington and presented a more orderly form with cobblestone streets running between rows of stone and brick buildings. But Boston and Philadelphia were suffering decline brought on by harbours clogged with silt and a resultant loss of commerce to the new shipping capital of New York City. With its deep harbour surrounding three sides of Manhattan Island, this was the new boomtown and where the real estate speculators, shipping magnates, trading houses, and financial firms concentrated.
But in 1810 even New York City was only just beginning a process of growth that would in the near future transform it from village to large city. Together, the four most populace American cities—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore— claimed no more than a combined population of 175,000 out of a national population of 5.3 million. Two million white males in the land were enfranchised and 85 percent of these were farmers. The United States was an agrarian nation. Its economy was almost entirely dependent on, in the words of President Jefferson, what its “yeoman farmers” produced. These farmers, Jefferson had declared, were the backbone of the nation and it was to them that the Republican party pandered.
That suited Clay, for he was a man of the new west where most men held modest land holdings. They tilled fields with ploughs dragged either by a mule or propelled forward by nothing but the brute strength of a man’s shoulders and back. Food was what could be raised or grown. Wives spun the family’s clothing from cotton or wool either produced on the farm or bartered for and it was easy to place a man’s social position by whether he wore homespun or imported British broadcloth. Cash was of little importance to such men, for during an entire lifetime of toil few would ever see a hundred dollars pass through their hands. In recent years, as anti-British sentiment rose to fever pitch in Kentucky, a wise politician like Clay had stored most of his broadcloth fineries and donned the rough homespun of his neighbours. But that would not do in Washington. His luggage contained the clothes that had given him the reputation of a dandy in earlier years.
Clay rode into a Washington in turmoil. Jefferson was gone, President James Madison just eleven months into his term after taking the oath of office on March 4, 1809. The government was in crisis, beset by how to respond with any effect to what many Americans called the British outrages. Clearly Jefferson’s embargo, brought into effect on December 22, 1807, was a failure. Described as “a self-blockade of the purest water,” the Embargo Act had prohibited departure of all vessels, American or foreign, from U.S. harbours for any foreign port. Stranded foreign ships could leave American waters only in ballast and with empty holds. This exception had been added to the act at the insistence of the always pragmatic Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, who feared that holding the few non-American ships would encourage other countries—particularly Britain and France—to retaliate in kind.
Although the embargo was the brainchild of Jefferson and then Secretary of State Madison, enforcing the act had fallen on Gallatin’s shoulders. By cutting Europe and European colonies off from the vast quantities of agricultural products they exported from America, Jefferson believed France and Britain could be brought to their knees without recourse to war. The president asserted that, “the power of this great weapon, the embargo,” would force the two countries to negotiate terms that would end the trade restrictions that had wreaked havoc on America’s maritime trade.
The fact the two European powers had imposed the restrictions in order to wage economic war on each other rather than to harm the United States offered cold comfort to America’s government and maritime traders. Although Britain had fired the first volley, it was Napoleon’s retaliatory response that collaterally struck American shipping. On May 16, 1806, the House of Commons enacted its first Order-in-Council that proclaimed the coast of continental Europe from the Elbe River to Brest under a state of blockade. While this effectively closed all French ports it did not curtail America’s ability to trade with Europe, as all Iberian, Mediterranean, and Baltic ports remained open to shipping. Although inconvenienced, it was still possible for France to receive American imports through these routes.
France, of course, had not been quiescent prior to the blockade. Ever since 1793, the French had done their best to keep British goods out of the areas of Europe they controlled. During the Republic, the Directory had seized any ship known to have put into a British port that then sailed into French waters. The Directory believed it possible to defeat Britain—so reliant on trade for its survival—by cutting off its exports in order to force a reduction in its gold stock and ultimately bankrupt the government. Soon after Napoleon seized power, he introduced the Continental System, whereby Britain was to be barred from any commercial activity with the rest of Europe and ultimately isolated from any world trade outside its own colonies. With his naval power greatly limited after the destruction of most of France’s naval fleet at Trafalgar, Napoleon sought to conquer the oceans that he could not control through a war fought on European soil. The defeat of Prussia in the Battle of Jena gave him possession of much of the Baltic coast and provided the opportunity to put his economic strategy into force. On November 21, 1806, Napoleon’s Berlin Decree imposed a blockade on the British Isles. Any ships coming into French ports from either Britain or its colonies would be seized. Russia, demoralized by the defeat of the Prussians, agreed to adhere to the decree and when Spain and Portugal fell to France in 1808 virtually all European ports were slammed shut to British ships and those from neutral nations that had entered her ports.
The British retaliated with another Order-in-Council on January 7, 1807 forbidding ships from carrying out coastwise trade with France or her allies or from entering ports closed to her. Napoleon struck back with the Fontainebleau and Milan decrees of the same year that declared that any neutral ships conforming to the British Orders-in-Council would be subject to seizure. Britain’s final retort came on November 11, 1807, with a proclamation that all French ports and those of her allies, and of all countries closed to British trade, were now blockaded. Further, all trade in goods from blockaded countries was forbidden and any ships carrying such goods would be subject to capture and condemnation of both goods and ships. Any ship carrying a certificate of origin issued by France could also be taken by the Royal Navy as a prize. In an attempt to offset the economic losses sure to result from its inability to trade with Europe, the British government also declared that neutral ships entering its ports were to be considered under its direction and must purchase licenses. This, it was hoped, would provide funds for the hard-pressed treasury.
For Britain, the effect of the French measures was significant. In 1807, almost forty-four percent of trade passing through British ports was aboard neutral ships and many decided not to risk Napoleon’s wrath or lose all possibility of trade with continental Europe—including Russia—in order to have access to British ports and markets. Able to trade with only a few nearby countries, such as Sweden (until it fell within France’s sphere of influence in 1811), Britain’s exports fell by ten percent compared to 1806.
The American Embargo Act was more devastating. No sooner had it come into effect than shortages of timber, grain, and cotton developed throughout the country that caused inflation. Before the embargo the United States exported about 46 million pounds of cotton per year with eighty percent of that going to Britain. The embargo slashed that source of cotton to nothing and alternative markets for supply had yet to be developed. Across the country textile mills were forced to cutback or shut down, causing a surge of unemployment, which was only slowly alleviated by increasing cotton imports from Brazil. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy was hard hit by the timber shortage, as it was virtually dependent on Scandinavian and North American lumber and spars for shipbuilding.
The embargo also sharply reduced British exports because America had become one of its primary trade partners. In 1806 more than fifty percent of cotton and wool products—$41 million worth—had been shipped to the United States. Almost twenty-five percent of all British exports were to America. Loss of this market threatened the country with an economic depression.
France also faced shortages due to the embargo, particularly with regard to tobacco and cotton, but with all Europe under its heel and Russia opting for continental trade rather than backing Britain—its traditional ally—imports and exports remained relatively strong. And with each passing month Napoleon added more territory to the empire’s reach. That Napoleon’s continental system might prove a viable economic strategy seemed increasingly likely.
Although Napoleon’s decrees equally threatened U.S. trade and freedom of the seas, politicians, the newspapers, and most Americans railed against Britain’s Orders-in-Council and seldom seemed aware of the French role. Many was the Republican, particularly those from the new western states, that believed against all logic that the emperor somehow still embodied the revolutionary spirit of France and was the “agent chosen to spread its great benefits and reforms to Europe’s oppressed peoples.” Among these true believers was Henry Clay, who thought Napoleon a healthy foil to Britain and “rejoiced at the continued blows he struck at the” Crown.
Not all Americans held Bonaparte in such regard. Jefferson considered him a tyrant who had hijacked a revolution that had promised to sow human liberty in Europe. But even the best informed Republican thought a war between France and Britain was advantageous to the United States. Like most Republicans, Jefferson and Madison believed that were it not for the European war that absorbed Britain’s attention and military might, that the Union would be in jeopardy. While not wanting to see France conquer Britain, Jefferson would happily see her humbled at Napoleon’s hands. Federalists, on the other hand, generally looked fondly on Britain, thinking her the “world’s last hope” and fearing that if France prevailed then it would not be long before America was added to its conquests. While they would welcome Napoleon’s downfall, most feared the consequences to the balance of power in Europe and the world that might come from a complete French defeat.
Balance of power was something that the president, his administration, the senate, and congress all gave much thought to and generally agreed upon. So long as France and Britain remained equal—the Royal Navy mastering the sea, the Grande Armeé the soil of Europe— America was unlikely to be directly threatened by either and would be free to prosper by trading with both great empires. Only a few cranks on either side of the political spectrum advocated the United States aligning itself with either Britain or France, the prevailing view was that America should instead keep isolated from European affairs. Since Independence, isolationism had dominated the country’s approach to foreign policy and affairs. Jefferson summed up American feeling when he wrote that the country was “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradation of the others; possessing a chosen country.”
Most Americans considered it an inarguable fact that the United States was a country chosen by God and hence morally superior to all others. Why else had the union managed to prevail during the revolution against a vastly more powerful foe? That moral purity remained only possible so long as the country maintained a strictly neutral stance. “The moment we enlist ourselves by sliding even imperceptibly into European politics, intrigue and warfare, we must abandon our peaceful, commercial, and hitherto prosperous system,” warned the General Republican Committee of the City and County of New York in the midst of the embargo crisis.
Pure isolationism, of course, was impossible. No matter how much it might want to, America could not simply withdraw into itself and ignore the outside world because of a need for imported manufactured goods and an inability to sell all of its own production entirely within the United States. This made it necessary to foray out into the dangerous world across the sea in order to engage in the international commerce essential to ensuring prosperity. And with the implementation of Britain’s Orders-in-Council and Napoleon’s various decrees those seas had become very dangerous indeed for American merchantmen.
Prior to Napoleon’s attack on neutrals trading with Britain and the introduction of the Orders-in-Council, American traders had developed a system that enabled them to profit hugely from France’s lack of either a powerful navy or significant merchant fleet. By importing large quantities of such products as coffee, cotton, and sugar from the colonies of France and Spain to the United States, American traders were then able to re-export to ports in continental Europe without Britain being able to claim that the ships carried products that originated directly from the colonies of its enemies. By this means in 1806 alone U.S. merchants moved 146 million pounds of sugar, 47 million pounds of coffee, and 2 million pounds of cotton into the country and out again to France. Effectively the American merchantmen were using their neutrality to provide supplies that France desperately needed and could acquire by no other means.
The U.S. government not only condoned this circumvention of the Royal Navy’s efforts to cut off the flow of goods from the colonies of its enemies, but actively encouraged the practice. Both the government and merchants prospered mightily from the war. Between 1802 and 1810 the American maritime service grew from 558,000 tons to 981,000. Prior to the war imported and exported goods were never worth more than $30 million in a single year. At the high water mark in 1807 exports totalled $108 million and imports $138.5 million. While Britain’s military spending ballooned its national debt, Jefferson and Madison were steadily able to reduce America’s indebtedness. In 1801 this had stood at $82 million. While France and Britain had been at war Secretary Treasurer Albert Gallatin had steadily paid down this debt with intent to eliminate it entirely over sixteen years. In 1808, for example, he was able to apply $8 million to debt reduction. The source of funds for this aggressive assault on the public debt was largely customs duties, about $9.5 million per year prior to invocation of the embargo.
Well aware of what the Americans were doing, the British government repeatedly accused the U.S. government, its merchants, and ship owners of being allied with Napoleon. For his part, Napoleon was happy to receive trade goods from his colonies by means of American ships, but he did not consider those exports vital to the maintenance of France’s economy and he had only scant interest in sustaining the overseas colonies. What he wanted was to ruin Britain’s economy and to that end he sought to force America to cease all trade with her. No sooner were his decrees issued than France struck hard at American shipping. Despite Napoleon’s meagre navy he was able to seize a great number of U.S. ships, mostly by detaining those that entered French ports unaware that these were no longer safe havens. Between 1807 and 1812, a report prepared by Secretary of State James Monroe, disclosed that France and her allies seized 479 American ships compared to 389 detained by Britain. Yet the anti-British sentiment prevailing in the popular press and on the floor of Congress was so implacable that French seizures went largely unmentioned. Instead, most Americans, particularly the likes of Henry Clay, singled out Britain for condemnation. For Britain’s seizures of shipping was inextricably linked with another, graver marine depredation that the British lion imposed upon the American eagle.