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 After agreeing to the terms, a new British diplomat came in (a man named Francis James Jackson) and rescinded the deal.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.

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

For my next quest, I mean to read through the eight volumes of Henry Adams The History of the United States of America, which looks exclusively at the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. I plan on one post for each. Each volume of this massive history covers two years, roughly corresponding with one session of Congress.

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Adams is interested in this period for a variety of reasons, all of which should still be of interest to us today looking back at history for lessons on unintended consequences of our actions, or more bluntly on how to sustain our values in the face of historical change. One of his interests in is how Jefferson’s “revolution of 1800” was undone by himself and his successor, James Madison. In almost every area, Jefferson’s vision of government was challenged by the international systems and the changing nature of the American economy. He is also interested in the growth of an empire (commercial, territorial) in the aftermath of America’s anti-imperial revolution. Thirdly, he is exploring the maturation of democratic values and the final triumph over aristocracy. One thing that makes this account so very relevant today is that he was one of the first who detailed a clear narrative of America’s place in the world in its early history. Much of Adams’ curiosity is with the Atlantic and the diplomatic relations with Europe. At a time when historians were obsessed with the frontier, Adams looked abroad seeing the United States within a world system. With these themes in mind, we can being to approach the lengthy text.

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

Adams starts with a very useful survey of the geographical, economic, and intellectual conditions in the United States in 1800. Adams lived at a time when the United States’ conquest of the continent was more or less achieved. Less than one hundred years earlier, the United States was fragile, with a small population, and great internal divisions. While he may have seen the eventual rise of the United States as inevitable, he makes it clear that no one would have thought it likely at the time of Jefferson’s presidency. The two main divisions running across the United States were political and sectional. The political division (working at both the local and the national level) is not just between the Federalists against the Jeffersonian republicans. There was a deeper division between the conservatives who held onto the some of the major assumptions about leadership carried in from aristocratic societies. Facing this was a growing democratic society, helped along by the relative equality of conditions compared to Europe. He also details a deep sectional divide in the realm of the mind. Now, I suspect there is some teleology in this given that Adams is writing after the Civil War, but his case is fairly convincing. What seems to be going on is not that one section lacked what could be called a ruling class, they all had that (true aristocrats in the South, a more religious and traditional communitarian elite in the North). In the Middle Colonies, a more apparently democratic society was able to flourish. “New York possessed no church to overthrow, or traditional doctrines to root out, or centuries of history to disavow. Literature of its own it had little; of intellectual unity, no trace.” (77) But generally, across the nation what matter was how this division was interpreted based on the local conditions.

 

In a brilliant little chapter called “American Ideals, 1800” Adams lays out the fundamental divisions between the United States and Europe. Conservatives, in a sense, looked back to Europe. “[They] could tolerate no society without such pillars of order. . .  The Church was a divine institution. How could a ship hope to reach port when the crew threw overboard sails, spars, and compass, unshipped their rudder.” (122–123). But despite their shouts, the American social system was doing just that. Yet democracy was untested when Thomas Jefferson was elected president. He was one of its spokespeople, but there was yet an American language, an American literature, an American science. Its innovations, such as they were, were social and visible in existing reality, but whether that could create something new or would become disastrous was the test that Jefferson’s party faced.

Whatever radical visions Jefferson had for the United States, as detailed in his 1801 message to Congress were focused on reducing the role of the executive. These were almost immediately undermined by foreign policy challenges: first a war against the Barbary Pirates and second developments in the Haitian Revolution, which saw an increased interest of France in the Caribbean. Domestically, efforts did go forward to correct the mess left by John Adams last minute appointments to the judiciary and the promises to reduce internal taxations. (I find the fact that the United States survived so long by taxing commerce and not labor interesting.)

Adams is never only interested in what is going on in the United States. He always saw the young republic in the context of a world system that they did not control, but were note entirely subject to. As much as the continent may be have been a blank slate (it was not, but some saw it that way), the world system was not and the United States could not avoid the challenge of being a part of this competitive and often vile world. Adams spends two chapters talking about the Spanish court and the French interests in the Americas and another on the rise of Toussaint Louverture. The result is we find these United States diplomats a bit out of their league or at least, being pushed into directions they would not like to do. “When Jefferson became President of the United States and the Senate confirmed the treaty of Morfontaine, had Louverture not lost his balance he would have seen that Bonaparte and Talleyrand had out-manoevered him, and that even if Jefferson were not as French in policy as his predecessor had been hostile to France, yet henceforth the United States must disregard sympathies, treat St. Domingo as a French colony, and leave the negro chief to his fate.” (262) This is just one example of this larger scale that Adams always sees these Jeffersonian revolutionaries on.

The context of Jefferson's first term

The context of Jefferson’s first term

The first volume of his history ends with more foreign policy problems, due to the French closure of the Mississippi and the closure of the Congress in 1803.

William and Ellen Craft: “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” (1860)

I have often seen slaves tortured in every conceivable manner. I have seen them hunted down and torn by bloodhounds. I have seen them shamefully beaten, and branded with hot irons. I have seen them hunted, and even burned alive at the stake, frequently for offenses that would be applauded if committed by white persons for similar purposes. (742)

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The story of William and Ellen Craft is a fascinating look at Atlantic history. This couple were born as slaves in Georgia but they ended their lives active in the suppression of international slavery, working in Africa and England, even starting a school in Africa. Later they became active in the Reconstruction South before their efforts to start up an industrial school in their home town, before it was destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, agents of the post-Civil War counter-revolution. They eventually started a cooperative farm. Their life forms a nice circle of Atlantic currents.

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The narrative has no byline and is written from William Craft’s perspective, but I will assume that they were shared authors since they shared the experiences that led to the publication of the narrative. It seems that the two of them were together on all of their travels and labors. For all we know, the inspiration for this narrative was Ellen Craft but the voice was given to William to meet the expectations of a patriarchal audience.

The main story of Ellen and William Craft’s narrative is the means of their escape from slavery in the Deep South. Most of the slave narratives came from slaves who escaped from the Border States. It was rare for slaves from Georgia to escape. The Crafts’ method involved Ellen—a light skinned woman—posing as an invalid with William posing as his personal servant. The plan worked fairly well, with only a few snags. The train station in Baltimore was the most troublesome, which was on close lookout for escaping slaves.

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The narrative begins with a point essential to the Crafts’ escape: the flexibility of the color line in the United States. The Crafts discuss how even whites could be enslaved, mistaken for biracial people. White parents even sold some of their children into slavery. They discuss at length a case of a German girl who was enslaved until she was properly identified. This same ambiguity helped Ellen and William Craft escape slavery, but the Crafts want to go father and use it to suggest an internal weakness of the logic of slavery, at least among those who argued that slavery was a good system because it was based on race. (This is a common thread in antebellum pro-slavery thought, which argued for the system from a position of natural law.) In an interesting way the Crafts hacked the system of slavery, including the tendency of masters to move slaves around the country.

The Crafts’ main audience seems to be English readers, so they spend quite a bit of time describing the system of slavery in the United States, going over things that would have been obvious to readers in the United States. I wonder how much impact slave narratives like this one had on the Civil War era diplomacy, which led to the effective isolation of the Confederacy despite the economic ties between England and the South. I would like to know more about this history of reading slave narratives around the world. And of course, it was not strictly a U.S. genre.

The Crafts are also a useful introduction to the dilemma of free blacks in the antebellum South, or more precisely the reasons for the intense hatred toward free blacks shared by the white Southern planting class. “They have no mercy upon, nor sympathy for, any negro whom they cannot enslave. They say that God made the black man to be a slave for the white, and act as though they really believed that all free persons of colour are in open rebellion to a direct command from heave, and that they (the whites) are God’s chosen agents to out upon them unlimited vengeance.” (701–702) They follow this with a description of legal efforts to make freedom impossible for blacks in the South, by expelling such people.

Although not one of the most well-known slave narratives, it is one of the best to explore the subtle line between freedom and slavery and the flexibility of the color line, which is itself a major theme of post-war black writing. I think we can also look at the Crafts as a couple of Atlantic radicals and use them to articulate the international dimension of their struggle.