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January 28, 2021 | by David Bruce Smith
Dolley & James Madison, Part III
By David Bruce Smith
Question from NCHE: The burning of Washington comes to mind as a major challenge in Madison’s presidency. Are there more obscure events that he found particularly challenging?
Just after the start of Madison’s 1809 presidency, gaggles of guests at the President’s House deduced a deviation in his demeanor:
“…often at Mrs. Madison’s receptions, the president simply stood in the middle of the room, looking distracted. Dolley noticed too and her heart went out to him. She knew what the trouble was. England and France. It was like these two warring countries had moved into James’s mind and taken over. Nothing had improved since the removal of the embargo…”
(The Great Little Madison by Jean Fritz; p. 108)
Two years earlier, President Jefferson, and Madison—then his Secretary of State—embargoed trade with Europe, to temper tensions with Britain. But, the measure flopped, and rancor rose--particularly among the flock of Federalists in the Northeast--where commerce was still connected to the Crown.
Within two years, all the prohibitions were lifted--except the Non-Recourse strictures between England and France; in the period since, there had been no détente in Britain’s belligerence. They maintained a mammoth maritime monopoly gleefully stopping vessels; stripping them of valuables; seizing sailors, and—sinking ships.
(“James Madison”—White House Historical Association; p. 2).
“…Madison…protested, threatened, and tried one diplomatic maneuver after another. Why couldn’t England see reason?” (ibid).
In June 1809, the British ambassador, David Erskine, indicated his country was ready to sign an agreement, to remove the remaining restrictions; industry re-opened, and the president anticipated a titanic triumph. Then, Madison:
“…inserted a clause…reminding King George that he had done nothing to that English officer responsible for firing on the Chesapeake [an American frigate blasted by the British]. Madison wanted to keep the record straight, and Americans did indeed resent England’s ignoring the incident as if it never happened…” (ibid)
The King squashed the transaction and recalled Erskine “who complicated matters on his own end by violating hid government’s instructions and making pledges his government later disowned.”
(The Madisons: America’s First Power Couple by Alexander Kennedy; pp. 173-176).
Madison, in the meantime, was bashed by Federalist flotsam—for his so-called weakness; indecisiveness; French bias, and deep dependence on Jefferson’s advice:
“…One Federalist, who kept an eye on Virginia mail, reported that in the course of three months, Madison had written to Jefferson twelve times. This proved, he said, that Madison couldn’t make a move without Jefferson’s approval. [Actually, they had been corresponding about problems with a newborn lamb].” (Fritz; ibid).
Erskine was succeeded by three ministers; the first “became so hostile, that Madison told him to go home. The next two…underestimated Madison and the temper of the country. There would never be a war, they said…” (ibid).
Finally, in August of 1811, optimism palpitated through America, again--when France disclosed it would revoke its Non-Recourse provision—if England reciprocated.
But the superpower had no desire to accommodate--or terminate--its talent to torture and terrorize on the seas.
That rebuff reverberated—and re-calibrated, stateside--into a rage on the rise.
Summers—luckily--were a respite for Dolley and James, from the constant contention in Washington. In 1811, hostilities were heated, heightened, and heavy, but—even so--they returned to Montpelier:
“Never mind that the New England Federalists were threatening to impeach Madison. Next year there would be an election and if the people wanted to get rid of James, they could vote him out. James and Dolley were not going to bother themselves with the Federalists. Or thoughts of the election. They were going to give England every chance to come to its senses…” (ibid).
That season, they resumed the neglected re-modeling, and prepared to entertain family, friends, and acquaintances for long, languorous, afternoon suppers:
“…There was plenty of room, and she and James took special joy in their nieces and nephews. But always Dolley had to count on unexpected visitors. Before serving dinner at four o’clock, Dolley or James would look through the telescope that they kept on the front porch to see if anyone was driving up the road. Everyone could expect a warm welcome…” (ibid).
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