President James Madison’s First Written Response to News That the War of 1812 Was Over

In a letter to Attorney General Rush, he predicts the American people will be satisfied with the war's result, and that the U.S. gained respect in the international community by standing up to Britain.

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Madison's first thought is that "the events of the war…cannot fail to command…respect"

The ongoing Napoleonic wars in Europe greatly impacted, if not dominated, the administrations of Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Almost from the beginning the United States was drawn directly in, as each of the belligerents sought to prevent American...

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President James Madison’s First Written Response to News That the War of 1812 Was Over

In a letter to Attorney General Rush, he predicts the American people will be satisfied with the war's result, and that the U.S. gained respect in the international community by standing up to Britain.

Madison's first thought is that "the events of the war…cannot fail to command…respect"

The ongoing Napoleonic wars in Europe greatly impacted, if not dominated, the administrations of Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Almost from the beginning the United States was drawn directly in, as each of the belligerents sought to prevent American ships from landing with goods for its foe. So despite U.S. neutrality, its ships were boarded by the navies of both sides on the high seas, and many hundreds of them were seized outright. The losses to American shippers were enormous and trade became precarious. Moreover, the British had the practice of stopping U.S. ships and impressing their seamen into the Royal Navy on the spot. These were violations of American sovereignty and much protested by these early administrations, but to no avail. During the Adams administration, French practices virtually led to an open conflict between France and United States. Jefferson’s solution was an embargo on trade with all the belligerents, so as to force the warring parties into respecting American rights. However, in practice, it proved a disaster that brought trade to a standstill and nearly wrecked the U. S. economy.

Then James Madison became President, and the entire mess was dropped into his lap. In addition to the maritime issues, Americans were angered by increased Native American attacks on the American frontier which they believed the British fomented. Many Americans in the West and South called War Hawks, led by such young up-and-coming men as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, were spoiling for a war in response to these outrages. They were hungry for glory and territorial expansion, and were confident that if the U.S. moved quickly, it could readily conquer Canada from Britain while the latter was preoccupied with Napoleon. The northeastern portion of the country was largely against the war, which it saw as unnecessary and a partisan venture that risked future trade and relations with the British. By May 1812, Madison came to believe that there was no alternative to war if national honor were to be maintained. On June 1, 1812, he gave a speech to Congress recounting American grievances against Britain. The House of Representatives quickly voted 79 to 49 to declare war, and the Senate by 19 to 13. The conflict formally began on June 18, 1812, when Madison signed the measure into law. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation, and the Congressional vote would prove to be the closest vote to declare war in American history. Madison had to contend with this opposition throughout the war.

As the war got underway, the main British goals were stopping American trade with France and continuing impressment of sailors from American ships to fuel the Royal Navy's needs. The Americans hoped to take Canada, clear the British from the frontier, and secure international prestige by stopping impressment. Events in Europe almost immediately undermined the underlying assumptions of both sides. The Americans found that with the decimation of Napoleon’s Grand Army in Russia, the British had men and ships to spare for a war in America. Instead of mostly a naval war as had been hoped, the British actually invaded the United States, and had a number of significant successes. Moreover, the Canadians showed no inclination to join the United States and resisted American incursions, proving erroneous predictions that taking Canada would be easy. Counterbalancing this, the Americans scored significant victories in the West, preventing the British from controlling the Great Lakes and laying open the Indian lands to white settlement.

Napoleon abdicated in April 1814. With his defeat the main British goals of stopping American trade with France and impressment of sailors from American ships were moot. So many in Britain, particularly the shipping and business communities, began pressing the British government for peace with the United States, arguing that continuing the war was pointless. And with the British engaging in a multi-pronged invasion of American territory, many in the United States saw that no significant additional gains would be made by continuing the war. Peace negotiations between the nations commenced in August 1814. While they were ongoing, the British took Washington and burned the White House, and Canada was secured to Britain; the Americans were now ready to end the war. However, the British were unable to occupy any part of the United States, and the Americans retained hold on the West and refused to relinquish it. Opposition to the war increased in Britain, and the Duke of Wellington stated that he did not want to lead military forces against the United States if the aim was to demand territorial concessions. British support for continuing the war collapsed. The negotiations began in earnest, and on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed. It called for no change in territory, and provided that prisoners would be exchanged. Impressment was not even mentioned, nor were American gains in the West rolled back. After the peace treaty had been signed, but before news of its signing had reached U.S. shores, Gen. Andrew Jackson won a decisive victory over the British at New Orleans.

In the days of sailing ships running against the wind, news traveled slowly. Unofficial word of the treaty arrived in Washington on February 14, 1815, with the President receiving the news reports that night. Confirmation of the news and the treaty itself arrived in the morning on February 15. Madison immediately sent official word to the United States Senate, informing them of the peace and asking for ratification of the treaty. The Senate did not waste a moment, ratifying the Treaty of Ghent on February 16; the following day Madison signed the ratification and the war was over.

Interestingly, according to the James Madison Papers, to whom we express our gratitude for their assistance, Madison is not known to have written any unofficial letters about the peace treaty on February 14 or 15, 1815, with one exception. His Attorney General, Richard Rush, wrote him on the morning of the 15th to offer congratulations, saying "I cannot refrain from the expression of my most hearty congratulations to you on the auspicious news of peace. It comes, indeed, at a most happy point of time for our interests and our fame. I must be allowed to say, how largely I participate in the just and grateful joy it must bring to all your public feelings. Your anxious moments, Sir, will now be fewer; your labors abridged; your friends, more than ever, gratified; an unmanly opposition more than ever confounded; the nation, in your day, advanced anew in prosperity and glory."

Madison responded to this letter on that same day. It is his first known response to news that the War of 1812 was over, outside of his official notice to the U.S. Senate. In it, he justifies the war, predicts that the American people will support the Treaty, and states his belief that fighting the war increased American prestige abroad.

Autograph letter signed as President, Washington, February 15, 1815, to Rush. "The occasion which led to your favor of this morning merits all our congratulations, and I heartily join in those you have expressed. The terms of the peace will, I hope, be satisfactory to our Country. With the events of the war, they cannot fail to command the respect of every other. I beg you to be sure of the particular satisfaction with which I hear of your returning health, and of my affectionate wishes for its speedy and complete reestablishment." He adds in pencil as a postscript, "Be so good as to return the two papers after a leisurely perusal. The newspaper is the latest that has arrived." The address leaf is addressed by Madison "The Attorney General", and on the verso appears Rush's docket, reading "President J. Madison, February 15, 1815. The reply to the note I had sent him, on the news we had just received of the Treaty of Ghent." This letter was once the property of the legendary autograph dealer ASW Rosenbach, who was active from the 1920s to 1951, and comes in his folder. It has remained in the family of the collector to whom Rosenbach originally sold it since then, and only now appears again on the market.

Madison was right in believing that the American people would support the treaty, and its results domestically were significant. The triumph at New Orleans and the end of the conflict left most Americans with the feeling that the war had been won in a burst of glory. Americans had stood up to the world's leading power, giving the fledgling nation a new nationalism. Conditions during the war led to the growth of US industries. And the opposition Federalist Party vanished and Madison's Democratic-Republican Party (and its successor) dominated the nation's politics for over 20 years. Madison left office popular, amidst an "era of good feelings", no mean feat considering the opposition with which he had had to contend.

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