History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 20
Meeting of the United States Congress—Substance of the President's Message, as regarded the Affairs with Great Britain—Refers to the State of Finance—President's View in declaring War.
On the 3d day of November, being the time appointed by law for the meeting of the United States congress, the speaker, Mr. Clay, took the chair at twelve o'clock; when it was found that thirty-eight members were in their places in the house. In the senate only eighteen members were present; and, that number not being a quorum, both houses were adjourned until next day, when a quorum was present. The committees for that purpose then announced to the president, that the two houses were ready to receive any communication he had to make, when Mr. Madison, by his private secretary, Mr. Cole, presented a message.
After the usual routine of congratulations common to such state papers, Mr. Madison calls the attention of congress to the motives for assembling a large military force under the command of General Hull, in the Michigan Territory, before the declaration of war—representing it as a measure of precaution and forecast, with a general view to the security of the frontier; and in the event of war, to such operations in the upper parts of the provinces of Canada as would intercept the hostile influence of Great Britain over the savages, obtain the command of the lake on which that part of Canada borders, and maintain a co-operating relation with such forces as might be most conveniently employed against other parts.
After adverting to the disastrous result of the expedition under General Hull in the Michigan Territory, the president states that that defeat "was not without its consoling effects. It was followed," says he, "by signal proofs that the national spirit rises according to the pressure on it. The loss of an important post and of the brave men surrendered with it, inspired, every where, new ardor and determination. In the states and districts least remote, it was no sooner known than every citizen was ready to fly to arms—at once to protect his brethren against the blood-thirsty savages let loose by the enemy on an extensive frontier, and to convert a partial calamity into a source of invigorated efforts.
"This patriotic zeal," adds Mr. Madison, "which it was necessary rather to limit than excite, has embodied an ample force from the states of Kentucky and Ohio, and from parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia."
This annual exposition of national affairs, next adverts to the descent made by General Van Rensselaer on the post at Queenston, on the Niagara River, and of his subsequent defeat and the capture of his army; and ascribes its unfavorable termination to the great superiority of the force with which that army had to contend, and their not receiving timely support by reinforcements*.
The next topic to which Mr. Madison directs the attention of the national legislature, is the disappointment to which their imaginations had been subjected, by not gaining the command of the lakes, as every effort in the invasions made into Canada, aimed to that particular object; however, measures had been adopted to provide a naval force on those waters, which, it was confidently hoped, would prove superior to that of the enemy; and from the talents and activity of the officer
*See Battle of Queenston, page 118. charged with this service, every thing that could be done might be expected; and that the progress made this season would doubtless secure for the next their naval ascendancy, where, as Mr. Madison remarks, it was essential to a permanent peace and control over the savages.
"Among the incidents," says Mr. Madison in his message, "to the measures of the war, I am constrained to advert to the refusal of the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, to furnish the required detachments of militia towards the defence of the maritime frontier. The refusal was founded on a novel and unfortunate exposition of the provisions of the constitution relating to the militia It is obvious," says he, "that if the authority of the United States to call into service and command the militia, for the public defence, can be thus frustrated, even in a state of declared war, and of course under apprehensions of invasion preceding war, they are not one nation for the purpose most of all requiring it; and that the public may have no other resource than in those large and permanent military establishments which are forbidden by the principles of a free government, and against the necessity of which the militia were intended as a contitutional bulwark."
The president next adverts to the affairs on the ocean, which he represents to have been as favorable to the arms of the United States as circumstances inseparable from its early stages could well permit them to expect. "Our public ships," says he, "and private cruisers by their activity and, where there was occasion, by their intrepidity, have made the enemy sensible of the difference between a reciprocity of captures and the long confinement of them to their side.
"Our trade," continues Mr. Madison, "with little exception, has safely reached our ports; having been much favored in it by the course pursued by a squadron of our frigates under the command of Commodore Rogers." Here the American president indulges himself in the most extravagant eulogiums on the skill and bravery of the American navy, seemingly, in his view, transcending any thing that had hitherto appeared on the face of the ocean.
He next refers to the correspondence between Lord Castlereah and Mr. Russel, for arresting the progress of the war; and, after briefly recapitulating the topics discussed by those two functionaries, recommends it as unwise to relax the measures adopted for the prosecution of the war, on the mere presumption of Great Britain giving a favorable reception to the terms of conciliation which they had last submitted for the consideration of that government.
Mr. Madison next takes a cursory review of the relations subsisting between America and the other European powers and the Barbary States; and represents them, notwithstanding the rupture with Great Britain, as nothing impaired, with the exception of Algiers, the regency of which had suddenly banished their consul general; but whether from the transitory effect of capricious despotism or the first act of predetermined hostility, had not been ascertained; but precautions had been taken by the consul on the latter supposition.
With a view to a vigorous prosecution of the war, he called for the particular attention of congress to the insufficiency of the present provisions for filling up the regular army. "Such," says Mr. Madison, "is the happy condition of our country, arising from the facility for subsistence and the high wages for every species of occupation, that, notwithstanding the augmented inducements provided at the last session, a partial success only has attended the recruiting service—the deficiency has been supplied, during the campaign, by other than regular troops, with all the inconveniences and expenses incident to them. The remedy," says Mr. Madison, "lies in establishing, more favorably for the private soldier, the proportion between his recompense and the term of enlistment." The president, therefore, recommended this as a subject highly deserving of their earliest and most serious consideration.
Mr. Madison next recommends, as a subject demanding the earliest attention of Congress, an increase of the number of general officers of the United States army, and the importance of rendering more distinct and definite the different relations and responsibilities of the various departments of the staff establishments, and a revision of the militia laws of the Union. Of the additional ships authorised to be fitted for service, two would be shortly ready to sail; and no delay possible of being avoided, would be allowed in fitting out the residue.
As regarded the financial affairs of the nation, Mr. Madison announced that the receipts into the public treasury for the year ending on the 30th September last, had exceeded sixteen and a half millions of dollars; which had been sufficient to defray all the demands of the treasury to that day, including a necessary reimbursement of nearly three millions of the principal of the public debt; a part of the receipts, however, was a sum of nearly five millions, eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars received into the treasury on account of loans which had been contracted for, under the authority of acts of the last session.
To deny that the country had its difficulties to contend with, although it richly abounded in the most animating considerations, were folly, as every day's experience taught a different lesson. With more than one nation they had serious and unsettled controversies; and with one nation, powerful in the means and habits of war, they were now at war. The spirit and strength of the nation were, nevertheless, equal to the support of all its rights, and to carry it through all its trials.
Above all, they had the consolation of knowing that the war in which they were then engaged was not a war either of ambition or vain glory; that it was waged, not in violation of the rights of others, but in the maintainance of their own; that it was preceded (says the president,) by a patience without example, under wrongs accumulating without end; and that it was, finally, not declared until every hope of averting it was extinguished by the transfer of the British sceptre into new hands clinging to former councils; and until declarations were reiterated to the last hour, through the British envoy here, that the hostile edicts against the commercial rights of the nation, and against its maritime independence, would not be revoked—nay, that they could not be revoked, without violating the obligations of Great Britain to other powers as well as to her own interests.
"To have shrunk, under such circumstances, from manly resistance, would have been a degradation blasting the best and proudest hopes of the nation; and would have struck it from the high rank where the virtuous struggles of the heroes of the Revolution had placed it; and would have been, on our part, a base betrayal of the magnificent legacy which we held in trust for future generations. It would have acknowledged, that on the element which forms three fourths of the globe we inhabit, and where all independent nations have equal and common rights, the American people were not an independent people, but colonists and vassals. "It was at this moment, and with such an alternative, that war was chosen. The nation felt the necessity of it, and called for it. The appeal was accordingly made in a just cause, in the just and all powerful Being who holds in his hand the chain of events and the destiny of nations."