President James Madison signed Macon's Bill No. 2, passed by Congress in April 1810, only reluctantly. The bill opened trade with France and Britain—suspended since 1809 by the soon-to-expire Non-Intercourse Act—and authorized him to impose trade restrictions against one offending country if the other lifted its trade restrictions against the United States. At war with each other since 1793, France and Britain had for the past five years rejected American claims that, as a neutral nation, the United States should be able to trade with both sides. Instead, British and French naval ships intercepted American commercial vessels and auctioned off their cargoes. Macon's Bill sought to encourage Britain and France to revise their policies. By promising, in effect, that the United States would commercially punish country A if country B agreed to allow America to trade freely, the bill offered an incentive to the two belligerents to end their maritime harassment.
Madison signed the new law, but he thought the bill was weak—just another half measure aimed at winning international respect for United States. He would have preferred a more aggressive and punitive approach to French and British harassment. He wanted Congress to impose high tariffs against the offending countries, or even to close American ports to their goods altogether until they acknowledged American maritime rights.
But Congress preferred a softer approach—and as he reviewed the bill, Madison concluded that perhaps even this half measure might serve his more aggressive purposes. He recognized that there was a trap, and perhaps an opportunity, lying within the bill's conditions.
Britain, the far stronger naval power, really had no reason to lift its restrictions. But France had everything to gain. Its Berlin and Milan Decrees of 1806 and 1807 imposed complex trade restrictions against any country trading with Britain. But France did not have the navy to enforce these decrees on the high sea; they were, for the most part, empty threats. By lifting them, however, in compliance with Macon's Bill, France could force the United States to restrict itself—that is, if France repealed its restrictions against the United States, the United States would be obligated to suspend its trade with Great Britain.
Napoleon thus immediately saw the opportunity lying within Macon's Bill. Therefore, on 5 August 1810, he instructed his foreign minister, the Duc de Cadore, to draft a letter to the American minister in Paris informing him that the Berlin and Milan Decrees would be lifted. It was expected, the letter continued, that America would impose restrictions against Great Britain in turn, as promised by Macon's Bill No. 2. And indeed, when Madison received the letter, he issued an ultimatum to Great Britain—unless British trade restrictions against the United States were lifted by 2 February 1811, all American trade with Britain would end.
Madison's Federalist critics—many of whom lived in New England communities dependent upon trade with Britain for their economic sustenance—immediately attacked the announcement. Napoleon could not be trusted, they argued, and Madison's rash acceptance of the suspiciously conciliatory Cadore letter would lead America into war. They were right on both counts. Napoleon could not be trusted. He refused to release American ships already held in French ports and fabricated excuse after excuse to justify the continued harassment of American shipping. And Madison's ultimatum did lead the United States almost irrevocably toward war with Great Britain.
Why, then, did Madison follow the course that he did? Why wasn't he more cautious in responding to French promises and more restrained in his threats toward Britain? In order to answer these questions, we must sort through three decades of American diplomacy—and look closely at two crucial years in particular, 1783 and 1801.
In 1783, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, British officials debated the commercial policy they would apply toward the newly independent United States. Americans rather naively assumed that the British would allow access to British ports just as they had in the past; after all, English consumers needed our wheat, the British navy needed our timber, hemp, and tar, and British planters in the West Indies needed our fish, wheat, and salt to feed their slaves.
But the British concluded differently. Eventually, Canada and Ireland would be able to deliver most of the same goods currently obtained from the United States. And Britain's short-term needs were more than offset by America's dependency on British manufacturing goods. There was therefore no need to offer any permanent trade concessions to the United States. In fact, given Britain's commercial advantages, ministers in London felt they could dictate trade policy to the United States. They could close West Indian ports to American goods. They could admit American raw materials to England on an item-by-item basis. They could exclude American manufactured goods from British markets altogether. And if the Americans objected, too bad—the United States had no real navy to back up its complaints.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was elected president and James Madison was named his secretary of state. The new Republican administration quickly reversed the foreign policies of its Federalist predecessors. When George Washington's Federalist administration negotiated the Jay Treaty in 1795, it accepted a subordinate commercial relationship to Britain as a short-term necessity. In return for limited American access to British markets in the West Indies and a qualified recognition of American commercial rights as a neutral nation, the United States granted Britain almost unlimited access to American markets and established a commission to assist British creditors trying to recover debts owed by Americans. By most accounts, Britain—negotiating from a position of strength—got the better end of that deal.
But Jefferson and Madison reversed this course. They always saw the Jay Treaty as a fawning acquiescence to British commercial bullying at the expense of the more sympathetic French. James Madison, in particular, believed that America should take a harder line against British policies. As early as 1790, as a Virginia representative to the United States Congress, he had argued that the United States should counter British trade restrictions with a series of discriminatory tariffs—import taxes that curtailed British access to America markets until Britain opened up more of its markets to American goods. Under the Federalist presidents George Washington and John Adams, however, this approach had been rejected. But now, in 1801, as secretary of state, Madison hoped finally to implement the more aggressive trade policy against Britain that he believed was long overdue.
The Republican administration elected in 1801 also reversed the naval-building policies of John Adams. As president, Adams had made strengthening the United States Navy a high priority. And he succeeded. At the time of his election in 1796, the navy had only three battleships. By the time he left office in 1801, the navy had fifty—enough to defend America's long coastline and maintain a viable presence in the Caribbean.
But Jefferson, and his successor James Madison, undid all this. The navy was expensive, and as Republicans they believed in frugal, tax-cutting government. They also believed that large militaries posed a domestic threat—their officer corps nursed aristocratic ambitions, and they provided a ready tool to serve would-be tyrants. Moreover, navies extended borders—they led countries into foreign affairs and costly wars. Jefferson was willing to invest in the small gunboats adequate for coastal patrols, but he allowed the larger warships to atrophy. By 1812, the United States had only a dozen seaworthy battleships of any size.
Other years brought new controversies and new wrinkles to the British-American conflict, but everything largely boiled down to variants on the two opposing positions staked out in 1783 and 1801. Britain continued to operate under the premise that it had the commercial and naval power to dictate trade and maritime policy to the United States, and that the development of its other colonies would soon eliminate any commercial dependence on the United States. Jefferson and Madison continued their refusal to accept a subordinate position to British power, even in the short term. But without a navy, they could apply only commercial and diplomatic pressure against the much stronger country.
When Britain and France went to war in 1793, Britain immediately declared that it would seize any cargoes sailing from enemy ports. American shippers challenged this policy. They argued that as neutrals, American merchants had the right to trade with both sides and thus American ships had the right to carry the goods of both France and Britain without fear of interference. But Britain, knowing it possessed far greater commercial and naval power, rejected this argument. It invoked the "rule of '56," which declared that ports closed to a country in peacetime could not be opened during times of war. In other words, France could not open its colonial ports, previously closed to American commerce, during the current conflict. Therefore, any American ships sailing from French ports should expect to be intercepted by the Royal Navy, their cargoes subject to seizure and auction.
In 1798, Britain formally revised this position and invoked the less stringent rule of the "broken voyage." This allowed American ships to carry cargoes unmolested between French ports so long as they made an intermediate stop at an American port. An American ship, for example, would be allowed to carry goods from French Martinique to France itself as long as it stopped in Boston along the way. In 1805, however, Britain revoked this rule, bringing French-American trade to an abrupt halt. In other words, in 1805 Britain all but reversed the maritime policy it had pursued since 1798. But beneath this reversal lay a more fundamental consistency, traceable to the position staked out in 1783: Britain possessed the commercial and naval power to dictate policy to the weaker Americans.
Similarly, in the years leading up to the War of 1812, Britain claimed a right of impressment—the right to board the ships of any nation that might be harboring fugitives from the British Navy, whether they be deserters or British citizens dodging naval service—and press them into service. Americans vehemently protested this practice. Occasionally, innocent American citizens were apprehended in these raids and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. More fundamentally, Britain's interception and searching of American ships represented a flagrant disrespect for American sovereignty, an outrageous act of international bullying on the high seas. But the British repeatedly refused to budge on the practice. They claimed that impressment was essential to national security—rooted in their right to national preservation. And here again, whatever the merits of the particular claims may have been, they underscored a simpler reality—Great Britain had the power to enforce its will, regardless of all questions of equity and justice.
The policies of Jefferson and Madison also passed through a number of variations after 1801. In 1807, hoping to pressure both Britain and France to revise their hostile policies toward American shipping, Jefferson secured from Congress a radical embargo against all foreign trade. Under the embargo, American ships were allowed to engage in the coastal trade, but they were not allowed to trade overseas. When the embargo proved more damaging to the American economy than either the British or French, it was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act. This new measure allowed Americans to trade with all countries except Britain and France, and it authorized the president to restore trade with either belligerent if it ended its maritime harassment. But while the two restrictive trade measures were different in their details, they both followed the course set in 1801—the decision made by Jefferson and Madison that British infringements on American commerce should be resisted, and given the undesirability of building and maintaining a large navy, that resistance should come from commercial and diplomatic means.
By 1810, therefore, James Madison had lived through almost 30 years of British commercial manipulation and maritime disrespect for American rights. And he had struggled for just as long to find a workable policy of commercial pressure that the United States could apply to bring about a change in British policy. He was growing impatient. He was also increasingly concerned about the premises underlying British bullying. When the British restricted access to their ports in 1783, arguing that Canada and Ireland would soon displace America as a provider of wheat, fish and timber, Madison scoffed; these territories could never fill the markets Americans now served. And for a while he seemed to be correct. Far from providing the foodstuffs needed on West Indian plantations, Canada was forced to import food, on occasion, from the United States.
But by 1808, the trade statistics were telling a different story. Assisted by British tariffs on foreign lumber, the Canadian timber industry exploded between 1808 and 1812. Canadian agricultural production increased as well. And the growth in both industries encouraged migration from Britain—and America—into southern Canada. The number of ships sailing out of Quebec carrying Canadian goods increased 500 percent during these years. And West Indian planters, who had earlier complained that Canada's snow-filled plains could never meet their needs, found themselves eating Canadian wheat, beef... and crow.
In other words, the British Empire's prediction of economic self-sufficiency was looking far more reasonable by 1810 than it had looked a decade earlier. If Madison did not act soon, if he did not apply more rigorous measures against the British now, the window of opportunity for gaining concessions through commercial pressure would close forever.
And if Madison's ultimatum to the British led to war? Well, perhaps it wasn't the worst time to challenge the mother country. At the moment, the great bulk of the British army and navy was tied down in Europe, fighting a brutal war against Napoleon's France. Napoleon's army controlled most of the European continent and he had assembled a 700,000-man army for an invasion of Russia. French aggression threatened the entire European balance of power. All Madison wanted was the right to trade freely and the respect owed to the United States as an independent nation. He sought neither territory nor conquest but only recognition from Britain that America was not some sort of dependent vassal state. Wouldn't it be in Britain's best interest to make this comparatively minor concession to the United States rather than risk a prolonged war? Wouldn't Britain be willing to negotiate rather than have to deploy valuable ships and troops thousands of miles away from the European theater?
So, was James Madison right in his strategic thinking? Yes and no.
Madison was wrong to believe that the British would rush to negotiate with him. Britain's Orders in Council ruling American trade subject to seizure were withdrawn on 23 June 1812, just days after the United States declared war on 18 June (and before news of the declaration reached London). But this British concession did not represent a real change in Britain's long-term policy. Madison learned this when he rushed off a delegation to London upon hearing of the repeal. While the orders had been "suspended," British officials told the American diplomats, they retained the right to restore them if necessary. And perhaps most telling, the British refused to budge on the issue of impressment; they would continue to intercept and search American ships for fugitives from the British navy, ignoring American claims of sovereignty.
Nor was Britain all that willing to negotiate once the actual fighting began. Reinforced in their confidence by early military success, the British refused Tsar Alexander I's invitation to mediate in 1813.
Madison was right, though, to calculate that Britain would be unwilling to divert a significant portion of its army from the European war. But American military incompetence made major British troop redeployments unnecessary. And consequently, Britain's commitment to a hard diplomatic line only strengthened over the first two years of the war.
Ironically, and fortunately, Madison was also wrong about the impact of the European war on the American contest. When Napoleon was forced to abdicate and France accepted a peace treaty on British terms in 1814, the British did not rush their newly available forces to America. The end of the European conflict actually strengthened the desire within Britain for a more complete end to more than two decades of war. And so British diplomats, for the first time, softened their demands, allowing for the negotiation of a cease-fire late in 1814.
Finally, Madison was wrong to think that war might be more successful than commercial pressure in bringing about a change in British policy. The negotiations that ended the War of 1812 said nothing about the substantive issues that had caused it; the Treaty of Ghent did not address British commercial policies, impressment, or the rights of neutral nations. And in fact, within a year the United States and Great Britain were back to arguing about trade restrictions and access to markets. These arguments would continue for over a decade, not really being resolved until many of the particular issues faded from significance. By 1830, the West Indies were far less important to American exporters than new markets in Latin America. Also by 1830, Britain's commitment to mercantilism had been replaced by support for free trade as Britain's old belief that national strength depended on the maintenance of a self-contained empire yielded to new ideas emphasizing the benefits offered all nations through participation in unrestricted international commerce. Thus the Anglo-American conflicts that sparked the War of 1812 died of old age, not in battle.
In order to understand the origins of the War of 1812, and the reasons why many historians have labeled the war both unnecessary and inconsequential, this diplomatic history is essential. But the war's importance went far beyond this diplomatic story. Inconclusive as it may have been diplomatically, the war had a tremendous impact on American political development, territorial expansion, and national identity.