History of the United States 1801-09/The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson/I:17
|←Chapter 16||History of the United States 1801-09
The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, Part I, Chapter 17
|Part II, Chapter 1→|
Chapter 17: Monroe's Mission 
AFTER THE LETTERS sent to Europe by Dupont de Nemours in May, neither the President nor the Secretary of State again stirred before the meeting of Congress in December. The diplomacy of 1800 was slow. Nearly six months were required to decide upon a policy, write to Europe, receive a reply, and decide again upon an answer. An entire year was needed for taking a new line of action, and ascertaining its chances of success. In October, Madison wrote to Livingston that the President again wrote to him, by the October packet, a letter which would have perplexed any European diplomatist.
- "We shall so take our distance between the two rival nations," said Jefferson, "as, remaining disengaged till necessity compels us, we may haul finally to the enemy of that which shall make it necessary. We see all the disadvantageous consequences of taking a side, and shall be forced into it only by a more disagreeable alternative; in which event we must countervail the disadvantages by measures which will give us splendor and power, but not as much happiness as our present system. We wish, therefore, to remain well with France; but we see that no consequences, however ruinous to them, can secure us with certainty against the extravagance of her present rulers. . . . No matter at present existing between them and us is important enough to risk a breach of peace,—peace being indeed the most important of all things for us, except the preserving an erect and independent attitude."
"Peace is our passion!" This phrase of President Jefferson, taken from a letter written a few months later, expressed his true policy. In spite of his frequent menaces, he told Livingston in October, 1802, that the French occupation of Louisiana was not "important enough to risk a breach of peace." Within a week after this letter was written, New Orleans was closed to American commerce, and a breach of peace seemed unavoidable. Down to that time the Executive had done nothing to check Napoleon. The President had instructed his agents at Paris and Madrid to obtain, if they could, the cession of New Orleans and West Florida, and had threatened an alliance with England in case this request was refused; but England was at peace with France, and Bonaparte was not likely to provoke another war until he should be able to defend Louisiana. So far as any diplomatic action by the United States government was concerned, Madison and Jefferson might equally well have written nothing; and when news arrived that the Mississippi was closed, alarming as the situation became, no new action was at first suggested. The President was contented to accept the assistance of the Spanish and French representatives at Washington.
In Jefferson's domestic as well as in his political household Don Carlos Martinez de Yrujo,—created in 1802 Marquis of Casa Yrujo,—the minister of Spain, was thoroughly at home, for he had a double title to confidence, and even to affection. His first claim was due to his marriage with a daughter of Governor McKean of Pennsylvania, whose importance in the Republican party was great. His second claim was political. Some years earlier he had so exasperated Timothy Pickering, then Secretary of State, as to provoke a demand for his recall. One of President Jefferson's first diplomatic acts was to ask from the Spanish government that Yrujo should be allowed to remain at Washington; and Godoy, who knew even better than Jefferson the character and merits of Yrujo, readily granted the favor.
Thus Yrujo was doubly and trebly attached to the Administration. Proud as a typical Spaniard should be, and mingling and infusion of vanity with his pride; irascible, headstrong, indiscreet as was possible for a diplomatist, and afraid of no prince or president; young, able, quick, and aggressive; devoted to his King and country; a flighty and dangerous friend, but a most troublesome enemy; always in difficulties, but in spite of fantastic outbursts always respectable,—Yrujo needed only the contrast of characters such as those of Pickering or Madison to make him the most entertaining figure in Washington politics. He had become an American in language, family, and political training. He loved the rough-and-tumble of democratic habits, and remembered his diplomatic dignity only when he could use it as a weapon against a secretary of state. If he thought the Government to need assistance or warning, he wrote communications to the newspapers in a style which long experience had made familiar to the public and irritating to the Government whose acts he criticized. For natural reasons the American Executive, which never hesitated to use the press without limit for its own purposes, held it indecorous that a foreign minister should attempt to affect public opinion. The example of Genet was regarded as a proof even more than a warning that such action was highly improper; but from Yrujo's point of view, as from Genet's, the question of decorum was ridiculous in a country which prided itself on the absence of etiquette, and the only question he cared to consider was whether the press answered his purpose. His success could be best measured by the exasperation it caused to the tempers of Pickering and Madison.
Yrujo felt no love for Bonaparte, and no wish to serve his ends. At this moment of anxiety, stepping forward to assist the President, he asserted that there was no cause for alarm; that the act of Morales was not authorized by the King of Spain, but rose from some excess of zeal or mistaken interpretation of the treaty on the part of the Intendant; and that a packet-boat should be instantly sent to New Orleans to inquire the reasons of the measure. His letter to the Intendant was in reality extremely sharp,—"a veritable diatribe," according to Laussat, the new French prefect, to whom Morales showed it. Yrujo pointed out the fatal consequences of Morales's conduct, and the ground it gave to United States citizens for claiming indemnity for their commercial losses. At the same time Madison instructed Charles Pinckney at Madrid to inform the Spanish government that the President expected it to lose not a moment in countermanding the order of Morales, and in repairing every damage that might result from it.
There the matter rested until December 6, when Congress met. Even at so exciting a moment, senators were slow in arriving at Washington, and a week passed before a quorum was formed. Not till December 15 could the Annual Message be read. No message could be more pacific in tone. The President discussed everything except the danger which engrossed men's minds. He talked of peace and friendship, of law, order, and religion, of differential duties, distressed seamen, the blockade of Tripoli, Georgia lands, Indian treaties, the increase in revenue, "the emancipation of our posterity from that mortal canker" a national debt, "by avoiding false objects of expense;" he said that no change in the military establishment was deemed necessary, but that the militia might be improved; he regretted that the behavior of the Barbary Powers rendered a small squadron still necessary to patrol the Mediterranean, but at the same time he strongly urged Congress to take measures for laying up the whole navy, by constructing a large dry-dock on the Eastern Branch, where the seven frigates might be stowed away side by side under cover, and kept from decay or expense. All these subjects he touched in a spirit of peace and good-will toward mankind; but when he came to the question of Louisiana, about which he had written so many alarming letters to Europe, he spoke in a tone of apparent indifference. "The cession of the Spanish province of Louisiana to France," he said, "which took place in the course of the late war, will, if carried into effect, make a change in the aspect of our foreign relations which will doubtless have a just weight in any deliberations of the Legislature connected with that subject." No allusion was made to the closure of the Mississippi.
Nothing could more disconcert the war party than this manner of ignoring their existence. Jefferson afterward explained that his hope was to gain time; but he could not more effectually have belittled his Federalist enemies than by thus telling them that a French army at New Orleans would "make a change in the aspect of our foreign relations." This manner of treating Congress was the more dexterous, because if the President did not at once invite the Legislature to realize the alarming state of foreign affairs, he abstained only in order to carry out other tactics. Two days after the Message was read, December 17, John Randolph, the Administration leader in the House, moved for the papers relating to the violated right of deposit. Great curiositiy was felt to know what course the President meant to take.
- "However timid Mr. Jefferson may be," wrote Pichon to Talleyrand, "and whatever price he may put on his pacific policy, one cannot foresee precisely what his answer will be. . . . I find in general a bad temper as regards us; and I cannot help seeing that there is a tendency toward adopting an irrevocably hostile system. This circumstance will be decisive for Mr. Jefferson. If he acts feebly, he is lost among his partisans; it will be then the time for Mr. Burr to show himself with advantage."
Thornton watched with equal anxiety the movement which promised to throw the United States into the arms of England. He expected as little as Pichon that the President would act with energy, but he hoped that the situation would force him into taking a side.
- "From the language of his ministers, and from the insinuations of some members of the Federal party, it will not be, I doubt, such a measure of vigor as would place the country on a commanding ground in the negotiation with Spain, or eventually with France; and the latter persons have some of them designated it to me as likely to be a very foolish thing."
Five days passed before Jefferson answered the call of the House; and when he did so, he sent papers which might have been prepared in five minutes, for most of them had been long printed in the newspapers. In communicating these documents, the President added that he had not lost a moment in causing every step to be taken which the occasion claimed from him; but he did not say what these steps were. A week later he sent another document, which he requested the House to return without publication; it was a letter which Governor Claiborne had received from Governor Salcedo, denying responsibility for the Intendant's act, and asserting that it was not authorized by the Spanish government. The House shut its doors and debated a week. Then it reopened its doors, and announced to the world that by a party vote of fifty to twenty-five, the following resolution had been adopted:—
- "Adhering to that humane and wise policy which ought ever to characterize a free people, and by which the United States have always professed to be governed; willing at the same time to ascribe this breach of compact to the unauthorized misconduct of certain individuals rather than to a want of good faith on the part of his Catholic Majesty; and relying with perfect confidence on the vigilance and wisdom of the Executive,—they will wait the issue of such measures as that department of the Government shall have pursued for asserting the rights and vindicating the injuries of the United States."
Strenuously as the President exerted himself to stifle the warlike feeling in Congress, his influence did not extend far enough to check the same feeling elsewhere. Successful in Washington, he found himself exposed to an alarming pressure from the West. One State legislature after another adopted resolutions which shook the ground under his feet. Eighteen months had passed since the seriousness of Napoleon's schemes became known to him, but as yet he had done nothing that could be construed as an attempt to represent the demands of the western country; all his ingenuity had, in fact, been exerted to evade these demands. The West wanted troops at Natchez, to seize New Orleans at the first sign of a French occupation; but the use of force at that stage was not in Jefferson's thoughts. To quiet Kentucky and Tennessee without satisfying them was a delicate matter; but, delicate as it was, Jefferson succeeded in doing it. He explained his plan in a letter to Monroe, written at the moment when everything depended on Monroe's aid:—
- "The agitation of the public mind on occasion of the late suspension of our right of deposit at New Orleans is extreme. In the western country it is natural, and grounded on honest motives; in the seaports it proceeds from a desire for war, which increases the mercantile lottery; in the Federalists generally, and especially those of Congress, the object is to force us into war if possible, in order to derange our finances; or if this cannot be done, to attach the western country to them as them as their best friends, and thus get again into power. Remonstrances, memorials, etc., are now circulating through the whole of the western country, and signed by the body of the people. The measures we have been pursuing, being invisible, do not satisfy their minds. Something sensible, therefore, has become necessary."
This sensible, or rather this tangible, measure was the appointment of a minister extraordinary to aid Livingston in buying New Orleans and the Floridas. The idea was adopted after the secret debate in the House. As Madison wrote soon afterward to Livingston, "such has been the impulse given to the public mind" by these debates and by the press, "that every branch of the government has felt the obligation of taking the measures most likely not only to re-establish our present rights, but to promote arrangements by which they may be enlarged and more effectually secured." According to this view, the impulse of Congress and the Press alone made the Executive feel its obligation. For more than a year the Executive had known the danger and had done nothing; being obliged to do something, its first object was to avoid doing too much.
Accordingly, General Smith of Maryland, Jan. 11, 1803, carried the House again into secret session, and moved to appropriate two million dollars "to defray any expenses which may be incurred in relation to the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations." The next day a committee reported, through Joseph Nicholson, in favor of appropriating the money, with a view to purchasing West Florida and New Orleans. The Report argued that there was no alternative between purchase and war. Meanwhile, January 11, the President sent to the Senate the name of James Monroe as minister extraordinary to France and Spain to help Livingston and Pinckney in "enlarging and more effectually securing our rights and interests in the river Mississippi and in the territories eastward thereof."
The nomination was approved by the Senate January 13; and without losing a moment, Jefferson wrote to Monroe, explaining the reasons which made his course necessary:—
- "The measure has already silenced the Federalists here. Congress will no longer be agitated by them; and the country will become calm as fast as the information extends over it. All eyes, all hopes, are now fixed on you; and were you to decline, the chagrin would be universal, and would shake under your feet the high ground on which you stand with the public. Indeed, I know nothing which would produce such a shock; for on the event of this mission depend the future destinies of this Republic. If we cannot, by a purchase of the country, insure to ourselves a course of perpetual peace and friendship with all nations, then, as war cannot be distant, it behooves us immediately to be preparing for that course, without however hastening it; and it may be necessary, on your failure on the Continent, to cross the Channel. We shall get entangled in European politics; and, figuring more, be much less happy and prosperous."
With infinite pertinacity Jefferson clung to his own course. He deserved success, although he hardly expected to win it by means of Monroe, whom he urged to go abroad, as his letter implied, not so much to purchase New Orleans, as to restore political quiet at home. For the purchase of New Orleans, Livingston was fully competent; but the opposition at home, as Jefferson candidly wrote to him, were pressing their inflammatory resolutions in the House so hard that "as a remedy to all this we determined to name a minister extraordinary to go immediately to Paris and Madrid to settle this matter. This measure being a visible one, and the person named peculiarly popular with the western country, crushed at once and put an end to all further attempts on the Legislature. From that moment all has been quiet." The quiet was broken again, soon after this letter was written, by a sharp attack in the Senate. Ross of Pennsylvania, White of Delaware, and Gouverneur Morris of New York, assailed the Administration for the feebleness of its measures. In private, Jefferson did not deny that his measures were pacific, and that he had no great confidence in Monroe's success; he counted rather on Bonaparte's taking possession of New Orleans and remaining some years on the Mississippi.
- "I did not expect he would yield until a war took place between France and England; and my hope was to palliate and endure, if Messrs. Ross, Morris, etc., did not force a premature rupture, until that event. I believed the event not very distant, but acknowledge it came on sooner than I had expected."
- "To palliate and endure" was therefore the object of Jefferson's diplomacy for the moment. Whether the Western States could be persuaded to endure or to palliate the presence of a French army at New Orleans was doubtful; but Jefferson's success in controlling them proved his personal authority and political skill. Meanwhile the interest and activity of the little diplomatic world at Washington increased. Monroe accepted his appointment and came for his instructions. Every one was alive with expectation. As public opinion grew more outspoken, the President was obliged to raise his tone. He talked with a degree of freedom which seemed more inconsistent than it really was with his radical policy of peace. With Thornton he was somewhat cautious. Immediately after Monroe's nomination. Thornton asked the President whether he intended to let the new envoy pass to England and converse with British ministers about the free navigation of the Mississippi,—a right to which Great Britain, as well as the United States, was entitled by treaty.
- "The inquiry was somewhat premature, and I made it with some apology. Mr. Jefferson replied, however, unaffectedly, that at so early a stage of the business he had scarcely thought himself what it might be proper to do; that I might be assured the right would never be abandoned by this country; that he wished earnestly for a tranquil and pacific recognition and confirmation of it; that on the whole he thought it very probable that Mr. Monroe might cross the Channel. He reiterated to me with additional force the resolution of the country never to abandon the claim of free navigation,—which indeed cannot be without dissevering the Western States from the Union,—declaring that should they be obliged at last to resort to force, they would throw away the scabbard."
Thornton added that the President still hoped the French would not for some time take possession of Louisiana, and rested his hope on the demand which the Island of St. Domingo would create for every soldier that could be spared; but he also talked of building gunboats for the navigation of the Mississippi.
- "In the mean time," continued Thornton, "the country seems in general well satisfied with the resolution taken by the House and the measure adopted by himself; and, what is more important, authentic information is received that the people of Kentucky will wait with patience the result of the steps which the executive government may think it right to take, without recurring, as was apprehended would be the case to force, for the assertion of their claims. The President regards this circumstance (with great justice, it appears to me) as the surest pledge of the continuance of his authority, and as the death-blow of the Federal party."
Upon Pichon the Government concentrated its threats, and Pichon sent to Talleyrand cry after cry of distress:—
- "It is impossible to be more bitter than this Government is at the present posture of affairs and at the humiliating attitude in which our silence about Louisiana places them. . . . Mr. Jefferson will be forced to yield to necessity his pretensions and scruples against a British alliance. I noticed at his table that he redoubled his civilities and attentions to the British chargé. I should also say that he treats me with much consideration and politeness, in spite of the actual state of affairs."
No sooner had Monroe been confirmed by the Senate, than Secretary Madison sent for Pichon and asked him to do what he could for the success of Monroe's mission. At ample length he explained that the undivided possession of New Orleans and West Florida was a necessity for the American settlements on the upper Mississippi and Mobile rivers, and that Monroe was instructed to obtain the whole territory east of the Mississippi, including New Orleans, at a price not exceeding two or three million dollars. This part of the Secretary's argument was simple; but not content with this, "he entered into details to prove that New Orleans had no sort of interest for us, that its situation was acknowledged to be bad, the choice of it was due to accident, and we might very soon build a city on the opposite bank." He argued further that the true policy of France required her to make the river her boundary against the United States; for "the United States had no interest in seeing circumstances rise which should eventually lead their population to extend itself on the right bank. In point of fact, was it not evident that since these emigrations tended to weaken the State and to slacken the concentration of its forces, sound policy ought not to encourage them? In spite of affinities in manners and language, no colony beyond the river could exist under the same government, but would infallibly give birth to a separate State having in its bosom germs of collision with the East, the easier to develop in proportion to the very affinities between the two empires." The secretary ended by hinting that should the First Consul not be persuaded by these suggestions, "it might happen that the conduct of France would decide political combinations which, getting the upper hand of all these consideration, would tend to produce results no doubt disagreeable to the United States, but certainly still more so to France and her allies."
Pichon was a sore trial to the moderate amount of patience which Bonaparte possessed. Instead of hinting to Madison that these arguments would have more weight if the President proposed to support them by acts such as a military First Consul was accustomed to respect, Pichon wrote melancholy accounts of his situation to Talleyrand. The Americans, he said, were throwing themselves into the arms of England; they thought they held the balance of power between France and Great Britain, and meant to make the nation which should force them into war regret the inconsiderate act; the States of New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, either through their legislatures or their governors, had energetically announced their readiness to risk everything to maintain the dignity and rights of the nation; Madison refused to do business, on the ground that Talleyrand's want of attention to Livingston required reprisals; the Secretary of the Treasury talked of war; a public dinner had been given to Monroe, at which General Smith offered the toast, "Peace, if peace is honorable; war, if war is necessary!" the President was open in denouncing Bonaparte's ambition; Monroe who had talked long with Pichon, used language even more startling than that of the President or the Cabinet:—
- "He did not conceal from me that if his negotiation failed, the Administration had made up its mind to act with the utmost vigor, and to receive the overtures which England was incessantly making. He repeated to me several times that I could only imperfectly imagine the extent of those overtures, and that if the tie were once made between the two States, they would not stop half way."
If Monroe made such an assertion as Pichon reported, he carried his diplomacy beyond the line of truthfulness; for although Thornton, without instructions, had offered one or two suggestions of concert, England had made no overture. Monroe's own instructions rested on the opposite principle,—that England was to receive, not to make, overtures. Jefferson wished only to create the impression that disaster impended over France if she persevered in closing the Mississippi. He spoke clearly to this effect in a letter written to Dupont at the time he was alarming Pichon:—
- "Our circumstances are so imperious as to admit of no delay as to our course, and the use of the Mississippi so indispensable that we cannot hesitate one moment to hazard our existence for its maintenance. If we fail in this effort to put it beyond the reach of accident, we see the destinies we have to run, and prepare at once for them."
Alarmed by such language, Pichon volunteered to imitate Yrujo and write a letter to the future French prefect whose arrival at New Orleans was expected, urging him to raise the interdict on American commerce. Madison was pleased with the offer, and in return communicated to Pichon a dispatch just received from Livingston, which announced that Talleyrand had consented to speak, so far as to promise that France would strictly observe in Louisiana the treaties which existed between America and Spain. "I quickly saw, by the rapidity with which this news circulated in the two houses of Congress, the salutary effect it produced. On all sides I was talked with, and the Administration is sincerely satisfied by it." Small as the favor was, the Administration had reason to be grateful, as it served for the moment to pacify Kentucky and Tennessee.
The months of January and February passed. Not until spring came, and the Seventh Congress was about to expire, did Monroe receive his instructions and prepare to sail. The nature of these instructions was so remarkable as to deserve a moment of study.
They were framed to provide for three contingencies. Should the French government be willing to sell New Orleans and the Floridas, the President would bid high rather than lose the opportunity. Should France refuse to cede any territory whatever, even the site for a town, the two commissioners were to content themselves with securing the right of deposit, with such improvements as they could obtain. Should Bonaparte deny the right of deposit also, the commissioners were to be guided by instructions specially adapted to the case. For New Orleans and West Florida Monroe and Livingston were to offer any sum within ten million dollars, commercial privileges for ten years in the ceded ports, incorporation of the inhabitants on an equal footing with citizens without unnecessary delay, and, if absolutely necessary, a guaranty of the west bank of the Mississippi.
These were the main ideas of Monroe's instructions. In brief, they offered to admit the French to Louisiana without condition. Bonaparte could have regarded nothing in these instructions as hostile to his own plans, and could have satisfied every demand by giving the United States, in the terms of the Spanish treaty, a place of deposit anywhere on the banks of the Mississippi, or by merely allowing American vessels to pass up and down the river. In private, Jefferson professed preference for Natchez over New Orleans as the seat of American trade. He made no secret of his intention to put off the day of forcible resistance until the national debt should be reduced and the Mississippi Valley filled with fighting men.
The tenor of these expressions seemed inconsistent with that of his letters by Dupont. After telling Bonaparte that "the cession of New Orleans and the Floridas to us would be a palliation," but no more, to the presence of France on the west bank, which would "cost France, and perhaps not very long hence, a war which will annihilate her on the ocean," then within a year to guarantee France forever in possession of the west bank,—had an air of vacillation. After telling Dupont again in February that if the United States failed to put the use of the Mississippi beyond the reach of accident, they should see the destinies they had to run, and at once prepare for them; then within a month to admit Bonaparte to possession of all Spanish rights at New Orleans, without guaranty of any kind for putting the use of the river beyond accident,—looked like fear. The instructions contained one positive expression: "The United States cannot remain satisfied, nor the Western people be kept patient, under the restrictions which the existing treaty with Spain authorizes." This sentence introduced only a moderate request: "Should it be impossible to procure a complete jurisdiction over any convenient spot whatever, it will only remain to explain and improve the present right of deposit by adding thereto the express privilege of holding real estate for commercial purposes, of providing hospitals, of having consuls residing there," and other commercial agents. Even this moderate condition was not an ultimatum. Madison required only that the Spanish treaty of 1795 should be respected, and this had already been promised by Talleyrand.
In truth the inconsistency was more apparent than real. Jefferson explained to the French government that the war he had in his mind was a contingent result. While assuring Dupont that if he failed to put the use of the Mississippi beyond the reach of accident he should prepare for war, he added in italics an explanation:—
- "Not but that we shall still endeavor to go on in peace and friendship with our neighbors as long as we can, if our rights of navigation and deposit are respected; but as we forsee that the caprices of the local officers and the abuse of those rights by our boatmen and navigators, which neither government can prevent, will keep up a state of irritation which cannot long be kept inactive, we should be criminally improvident not to take at once eventual measures for strengthening ourselves for the contest."
The essence and genius of Jefferson's statesmanship lay in peace. Through difficulties, trials, and temptations of every kind he held fast to this idea, which was the clew to whatever seemed inconsistent, feeble, or deceptive in his administration. Yielding often, with the suppleness of his nature, to the violence of party, he allowed himself to use language which at first sight seemed inconsistent, and even untruthful; but such concessions were momentary: the unswerving intent could always be detected under every superficial disguise; the consistency of the career became more remarkable on account of the seeming inconsistencies of the moment. He was pliant and yielding in manner, but steady as the magnet itself in aim. His manœuvres between the angry West and the arbitrary First Consul of France offered an example of his political method. He meant that there should be no war. While waiting to hear the result of Monroe's mission he wrote to an English correspondent a letter which expressed his true feelings with apparent candor:—
- "We see . . . with great concern the position in which Great Britain is placed, and should be sincerely afflicted were any disaster to deprive mankind of the benefit of such a bulwark against the torrent which has for some time been bearing down all before it. But her power and prowess by sea seem to render everything safe in the end. Peace is our passion, and wrongs might drive us from it. We prefer trying every other just principle, right and safety, before we would recur to war."