When James Madison took his oath of office in March 1809, he inherited a foreign policy mess and a national security crisis. He had been elected by an overwhelming majority of the electoral votes, and voters had given his Democratic-Republicans substantial majorities in the 11th Congress. In the House, there were now 106 Democratic-Republicans Representatives to 36 Federalists, and in the Senate, 28 Democratic-Republicans to 6 Federalist Senators.
For eight years, Jefferson had done his level best to minimize defense expenditures. (See Blog Post #169 posted on7/17/2022 – Jefferson’s National Defense Conundrum – https://marcliebman.com/jeffersons-national-defense-conundrum/ ) The U.S. Army was horribly underfunded, which meant it was also undertrained, poorly equipped, and badly led. It was also scattered in the Northwest Territories trying to defend settlers from the Native Americans.
The Navy faced a similar problem, and rather than scatter what few dollars were given to the sea service on many ships, it decided to fully man a few vessels to keep them mission-capable and rotate crews. Those not assigned to ships were put on half-pay or not re-enlisted.
In the U.K., many British political leaders resented the new, upstart nation. They saw the 1783 Treaty of Paris as a humiliation as well as a military defeat. These men resented the fact that the U.S. did not want to be part of the British Commonwealth, not to be confused with the modern Commonwealth of Nations. And, if pressed, they believed that Britain should have never let the U.S. become independent. On the floor of Parliament, some urged the British government to invade the U.S. and force it to again become a British colony.
Their behavior manifested itself in policies that were an attempt to punish the U.S. and oddly enough, align itself with the Mother Country. In trade, Great Britain required ships going to European nations to stop in England and pay a tax. American ships were being stopped in international waters and our seamen impressed. In the American West, the British instigated and armed the Native Americans with the promise that should the Americans be defeated, they would enable an independent nation to be created under the protection of Britain.
Jefferson desperately wanted to side with Napoleon. He was a Francophile and had a hand in fomenting the French Revolution. The French Foreign Ministry was willing to do whatever it took to encourage the U.S. to ally with France and prevent the U.S. from siding with the British.
As President, Jefferson tried appeasement, embargoes on British goods, and taxes on raw materials from British colonies to encourage U.S. businesses to buy them elsewhere, i.e., from France or Spain or their respective colonies. None of these measures worked, and in 1807, Jefferson forced the Embargo Act through Congress, which caused the U.S. economy to immediately contract. (See Blog Post #172 posted on 8/7/2022 – The 1807 Tale of Ograbme #https://marcliebman.com/the-1807-tale-of-ograbme/ ).
Britain was the U.S.’s largest trading partner, and European nations as a group were a distant second. What was Madison to do? Jefferson was revered by his Democratic-Republican colleagues in the House and Senate a clear majority and reversing his predecessor’s policies would meet opposition and enable the hated Federalists to say, “I told you so.”
Recognizing that the Embargo Act of 1807 was a total failure, Jefferson encouraged his fellow Democratic-Republicans in the Congress to pass the Non-Intercourse Act in the last 16 days of his presidency. The legislation, opposed by all the Federalists in the House and Senate maintained the embargos on goods going to British and French ports but lifted them for cargo going anywhere else. It was, and Jefferson knew it when it was passed, unenforceable.
When Madison took office, he led a country that was being bullied by the British, and as you will see in next week’s post, manipulated by the French.
Image is a map that shows the electoral votes in the 1808 Presidential Election by cgrealms.