Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

Meanwhile nothing could be more dangerous to the Americans than the loss of self-respect. The habit of denouncing themselves as cowards and of hearing themselves denounced as a race that cared only for money tended to produce the qualities imputed. Americans of 1810 were persuaded that they could not meet Englishmen or Frenchman on equal terms, man against man, or stand in battle against the veterans of Napoleon or Nelson. The sense of national and personal inferiority sank astonishingly deep. (150)

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This quote from Henry Adams study of James Madison’s presidency (the second half of his massive nine volume history of the Jeffersonian “revolution”) suggests the theme of the first half of Madison’s first term. With Thomas Jefferson’s embargo a political and diplomatic failure, Madison was forced to sustain Jefferson’s final law, the Non-Intercourse Act. This loosened some aspect of the Embargo Act, banning trade only with England and France, but more or less sustained the United States’ weak hand. Combined with weak leadership in Congress and the White House (Adams is quite harsh on Madison who he saw as failing to meet the times).

In many ways, the Jeffersonian revolution had already failed by the time Madison took office. The only bright side of the embargos was that they did promote some local industrial development, running contrary to the Jeffersonian hope for an agrarian nation. Military expenses, slashed when Jefferson took office, were forcing a renewal of the national debt in the early years of Madison’s first term. Neither Britain nor France seemed to respect the United States. The largest humiliation came when the attempt to get Britain to agree to the terms of the Non-intercourse Act, which would open trade with Britain in exchange for certain concessions, failed in a public humiliation for the United States. After agreeing to the terms, a new British diplomat came in (a man named Francis James Jackson) and rescinded the deal. Madison flayed around trying to get the British to commit to their previous agreements. Neither was the legislature any more impressive, which resorted to Macon’s Bill No. 2, which opened trade to both Britain and France provisionally. If either stopped playing nice, the United States would restore the boycotts.

The boycotts that worked so well during the struggle leading up to the Revolutionary War, were simply weak foreign policy and made the United States look like a petulant child, all the while overstating its importance in the international commercial system. Madison, who opposed the Bill, was forced to accept Napoleon’s exploitation of the bill. Napoleon immediately granted the United States rights as neutral carriers, something France needed to sustain its rule over the European mainland. Of course, he would not necessarily follow through on his promise not to strike American shipping with Britain. Well, after three long years of the Jeffersonian attempt at forced neutrality, shipping reopened, but not on the terms that made the United States look strong. Essentially, Macon’s Bill No. 2 was a surrender to the Europeans.

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Madison as President

Politically, the embargo crisis destroyed much of the energy of the Federalist Party, which was pushed to an even smaller minority in the 12th Congress. Adams also notices a change in the nature of the Republicans, who became less devoted to the principles that brought them into power and more interested in sustaining the power of the government. The previous Congress was so disliked that they even enjoyed some popularity although the institution was shattered. “Not only did Republicans and Federalists think alike for once, but even among the members themselves no one of weight had a good work to say of the body to which he belonged.” (221) This brings up an interesting question about why it is that the Congress of the United States is so commonly unpopular despite the innovations in self-rule that the American Revolution inspired. What does it tell us about the spirit of American politics that presidents tend to be more popular than the body representing the people?

While England and France were in a struggle for survival, the United States kept on playing small games on the side of these affairs. One of these was the 1811 law giving the president authority to seize East Florida. The 12th Congress also voted to end the charter of the Bank of the United States. This was an exception to the gradual shift toward central power Adams documents in the Republican presidents Jefferson and Madison. Madison supported ending the bank as part of the leftover agenda of Jefferson’s presidency, but Madison would oversee its return a few years later.

It seems to me that Adams had moved to largely explaining the causes of the War of 1812. Looking ahead in the volume I see that most of the remaining pages is devoted to either the causes of that war, or its fighting. The final two or three years of Madison’s presidency are presented as an afterthought. I still think that Adams here is a pioneer of the U.S. in the world approach to history, careful to show how event events in Russia and Sweden (and at one point India) are shaping the decisions of American policy-makers. But, if we are brutally honest, the second half of Adams’ history is really a telling of the story of the War of 1812. The lesson of this volume is that the United States, by sustaining a delusion of its own importance, wasted a number of good years where it could have acted like the empire it was. In this way, Madison proved to be no different than Jefferson in refusing to admit its own imperial activities. Perhaps this comes from the Atlantic perspective of these presidents (and Adams as the author). I am not sure what Adams will say about Tecumseh and the Shawnee revolt, but we will see in the next volume. Perhaps we will find a more honest empire there.

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