April 1 1812: Madison's Secret Message

On April 1, 1812, President Madison sent to Congress a secret message, which was read behind closed doors:   
Considering it as expedient, under existing circumstances and prospects, that a general embargo be laid on all vessels now in port or hereafter arriving for the period of sixty days, I recommend the immediate passage of a law to that effect. 
Madison was setting the stage for war by first proposing a general embargo on American shipping, but directed primarily against Britain. He anticipated that the British would not alter its policies and repeal the Orders in Council. This would then serve as a further justification for the American declaration of war that would follow. The proposed embargo did allow both sides of the debate to see their policies in it.  Embargoes had long been favoured by republicans. They were marked more by their idealistic origins rather than by any actual success. Republicans had believed that they could use trade, rather than war, to force the European powers, especially Britain, to recognize American neutral rights. Jefferson had tried it in 1807 with the Embargo Act which forbade any ship from leaving for a foreign port. It proved a colossal failure and was repealed in March 1809. The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, that applied an embargo only on British and French ports, was also unsuccessful, unenforceable and unpopular. It was replaced in 1810 by Macon's Bill Number 2 which lifted all embargoes but offered that if either France or Great Britain were to cease their attacks on American shipping, the United States would reinstate an embargo on the other nation. Napoleon not constrained by principles - or the need to have a consistent policy save what suited his interests- was able to convince Madison that the Berlin and Milan Decrees had been repealed while French ships continued to attack American shipping. Madison viewed Britain as the enemy so he ignored or downplayed the evidence that France for all practical purposes had not repealed her decrees. Augustus Foster, the British Minister in Washington, was to learn this when he met with Secretary of State James Monroe on March 31, 1812. Foster  wanted to know if the United States was going to demand that the French produce proof that the  decrees had been repealed. Monroe explained that the administration was not going to pursue the issue with the French. Foster writes of the encounter:
"He told me, a good deal to my disappointment I confess, that the President did not think it would lead to any utility to order an answer to be written to either of my last notes ; that he could not now entertain the question as to whether the French Decrees were repealed, having already been convinced and declared that they were so. He said that the case of the two American ships which were burned could not be said to come under the Berlin and Milan Decrees, however objectionable the  act was to this Government ; that the declaration of the French commodore of his having orders to burn all ships bound to or from an enemy's port was given only verbally, and might not have been well understood by the American captain, who did not very well understand French; when the declaration in writing only alluded to ships bound to or from Lisbon and Cadiz." 
On April 1, the next day, the President sent down his secret message which led to a debate in Congress during the next couple of days and passage of an embargo. 

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