Napoleon Plays Madison

Trying to stay neutral in a world at war was a delicate balancing act. Since President Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation in 1793, President Adams and President Jefferson continued the policy focused on keeping the U.S. out of another global war between England and its allies and the French and theirs.

What made it more complicated was that the alliances kept changing as European monarchies tried to defeat France to put the House of Bourbon back on their throne. These failed, leading to a coup on November 19th, 1799, that put Napoleon in power as the First Consul of France. The French, Spanish, Dutch, and British said the right things when they signed the 1803 Treaty of Amiens on March 25th, 1802, bringing peace to Europe after 11 years of war.

But it didn’t last long. Napoleon’s actions in Europe to isolate Britain and to expand French hegemony over the smaller nation-states in Europe led to a declaration of war by England on May 14th, 1803. Peace had lasted barely 13 months.

The French Revolutionary Wars were good for the American economy which grew about 300% between 1792 and 1800. Without an effective, sea-going navy, Jefferson was in a bind. He needed to protect American ships, but philosophically, he did not want either a strong army or navy. See Blog posts Jefferson’s complicated relationship with the U.S. Navy (1/23/22) and Jefferson takes a budget Axe to the New U.S. Navy (1/30/22).

So, Jefferson sent James Pickney and James Monroe to London to negotiate an end to British impressment of U.S. seamen and seizing U.S. ships. They fail.

British harassment of U.S. shipping bound for European ports continued, and after Napoleon issued his Berlin Decree in 1806, the British announced a formal blockade of all European ports.

Jefferson responded with the Non-Importation Act of 1806, which banned imports of any goods from Britain. Besides being unenforceable, it caused the U.S. economy to contract. Still not done, Jefferson forced the Embargo Act of 1807 through Congress, and between the two pieces of legislation, the U.S. economy contracted by about 10%.

Realizing that he created an economic mess for his successor to go along with the foreign policy problems, Jefferson got Congress to repeal the Embargo Act of 1807 before he left office. Not only did Jefferson leave Madison with a foreign policy in tatters as is covered in the 12/10/23 post – Madison Inherited a Foreign Policy and National Security Mess –, he also left him with a major recession.

Madison urged Congress to pass what is known as Macon’s Bill #2 which lifted the U.S. embargo on ships going to countries at war for 90 days. And it contained a provision that if a country lifted its embargo on U.S. goods, the U.S. would embargo those of their enemy.

Napoleon saw an opportunity and immediately agreed to lift any restrictions on U.S. goods coming into France or any countries either conquered by or allied with France. Madison, who helped push Macon’s Bill #2 through Congress, had no choice but to agree, knowing that 70 – 80% of U.S. trade was with England. The bill is named after North Carolinian Nathaniel Bacon, the 5th Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The Brits threatened to attack the U.S. if the Madison Administration enforced the provisions of Macon’s Bill #2. The souring relations between the U.S. and the U.K. worsened. Luckily, Napoleon got President Madison off the hook by reneging on his commitment, but the French leader had achieved his real goal of pushing the U.S. and Great Britain closer to war.

Image is Peter Pencil’s 1809 cartoon showing both Napoleon and King George III taking money from President Jefferson’s pocket.

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