MADISON, James. Manuscript document signed ("James Madison") as President, addressed to the Senate and House of Representatives, comprising the PRESIDENTIAL MESSAGE TO CONGRESS REQUESTING A DECLARATION OF WAR AGAINST GREAT BRITAIN, Washington D.C., 1 June 1812. 13 pages, folio (12 5/8 x 7 15/16 in.), blue silk ornamentation attached to first page, identifying docket on verso of last page, slight browning, otherwise in very fine condition.
PRESIDENT MADISON'S CALL FOR A DECLARATION OF WAR IN 1812: "THE UNITED STATES...OPPOSING FORCE TO FORCE IN DEFENCE OF THEIR NATIONAL RIGHTS, SHALL COMMIT A JUST CAUSE INTO THE HANDS OF THE ALMIGHTY DISPOSER OF EVENTS"
Madison's formal appeal to the Congress for a Declaration of War upon Great Britain, constituting the first time a President had exercised executive authority to request a Congressional declaration of war against a foreign enemy (under Article I, Sect. 7 of the Constitution); his war message established a powerful precedent for subsequent chief executives. The document contains a detailed itemization of persistent British violations of America's sovereignty and neutrality, a "crying enormity" which, Madison had finally concluded, could only be answered by military resistence, to maintain America's "genuine, republican independence" (Ketcham, James Madison, p. 530).
The events of the French Revolution, directed against a privileged aristocracy and the very principal of absolute monarchy, alarmed the governments of other European states; endeavoring to curtail the revolutionary threat, these states had formed a coalition to wage war against the revolutionary government. Great Britain's powerful navy dominated the sea lanes, and in 1807 had adopted Orders in Council which blockaded all ports from which British goods were excluded and required neutrals who wanted to trade with those ports to land in England and pay transit duties (the French took similar actions, though with lesser effect). Seizures of American vessels on the high seas mounted, and "between 1807 and 1812 the two belligerants and their allies seized about 900 American ships," and "the repeal of the belligerant decrees became the paramount objective of American foreign policy..." (D. Hickey, The War of 1812, p.19).
After Napoleon came to power, the British increased attacks upon American neutral trade and continued the policy of impressing sailors from merchant ships into the British Navy. President Jefferson had attempted with the Embargo Act to strike back economically against these abuses, but after 15 months, the unsuccessful measure was repealed. Madison, despite a belief that the President should not make foreign policy decisions, steadily found himself pressed to take action by a faction of Warhawks in Congress. Madison hoped that an aggressive stance might intimidate the British into retreating from their offensive policies against neutrals. But when the Hornet arrived on May 22 with news that the British had made no concessions, Madison concluded that he had no choice but to ask for a declaration of war.
It took an hour and a half for a clerk to read Madison's war message (and certain supporting documents) before a joint session of Congress on June 1st. In his message, Madison boldly asserts that the actions of the British government constitute "acts hostile to the United States as an independant and neutral nation." First, the President addresses the issue of impressment: "British cruisers have been in the continued practise of violating the American flag on the great high way of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it; not in the exercise of a Belligerent right founded on the Law of Nations against an Enemy; but of a municipal prerogative over British subjects...." He contends that "the acknowledged laws of war...would imperiously demand the fairest trial, where the sacred rights of persons were at issue. In place of such a trial, these rights are subjected to the will of every petty commander." During these seizures, he states, "thousands of American citizens, under the safeguard of public law, and of their national flag, have been torn from their country, and from every thing dear to them." Madison adds that continued diplomatic attempts to end the British practice have all proven useless.
Madison then details British violations of neutral rights and the deleterious effects on American trade, charging that the British warships have been "violating the rights and the peace of our coasts...They hover and harrass our entering and departing commerce"; some of these encounters "have wantonly spilt American blood, within the sanctuary of our territorial jurisdiction...Under pretended blockades...our commerce has been plundered in every sea; the great staples of our country have been cut off from their legitimate markets; and a destructive blow aimed at our agricultural and maritime interests."
Madison's indictment accuses Britain of commercial aggression; American trade was to be suppressed not because it hindered Britains waging of war against France, but for "interfering with the monopoly which she covets for her own commerce and navigation. She carries on a war against the lawful commerce of a friend, that she may the better carry on a commerce with an enemy." Repeated diplomatic efforts, Madison claims, have shown Britain's reluctance to modify its policies, including the instigation of hostile Indian raids on the northwest frontier. The President concludes with a strong call to arms: "Such is the spectacle of injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country...We behold our seafaring citizens still the daily victims of lawless violence...Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations, and these accumulating wrongs; or opposing force to force in defence of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty disposer of events...is a solemn question, which the constituation wisely confides to the Legislative Department of the Government."
"In places Madison's message echoed the Declaration of Independence, a reflection of the Republican view that a second war of independence was necessary to end Britain's quasi-colonial practices" (Hickey, p.44). Despite his impassioned request for hostile action against Britain, Madison only reluctantly took the nation into war: "Madison viewed the declaration with sadness and regret, though he had for nearly a year been working...to prepare the country for battle" (Ketcham, p. 529). A deeply divided Congress voted on 18 June for a declaration of war on Great Britain.
Published in Messages and Papers of the President, ed. J.D. Richardson, 1:499-505.
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, Part I, 26 April 1978, lot 210).