James Madison's Presidency

It was at this troublous period in our history that Mr. Madison of Virginia began his administration of eight years as President of the republic, with George Clinton of New York as Vice-President. The general aspect of national affairs then was fairly drawn (though somewhat highly-colored) in a report of a committee of the Massachusetts legislature in January, 1809, which said: "Our agriculture is discouraged; the fisheries abandoned; navigation forbidden; our commerce at home restrained, if not annihilated; our commerce abroad cut off; our navy sold, dismantled, or degraded to the service of cutters or gun-boats; the revenue extinguished; the course of justice interrupted; and the nation weakened by internal animosities and divisions, at the moment when it is unnecessarily and improvidently exposed to war with Great Britain, France, and Spain." It was believed that the new President would perpetuate the policy of Jefferson; but when, dressed in a suit of plain black cloth, he modestly pronounced his inaugural address before a multitude of eager spectators, on the 4th of March, 1809, the tone and temper of that speech fell like oil upon troubled waters. His most placable political enemies who heard him, and those who read the address, could not refrain from uttering words of approbation; and the whole nation entertained hopes that his measures might change the gloomy aspect of public affairs. He had able constitutional advisers in Robert Smith as Secretary of State; Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury; William Eustis, Secretary of War; Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, and Caesar Rodney, Attorney-General. There was a powerful party in the nation hostile to his political creed and opposed to war with Great Britain, which then seemed to be an event in the near future.

At the beginning of his administration, Madison was assured by the British minister at Washington (Mr. Erskine) that such portions of the orders in council as affected the United States would be repealed by the 10th of June; and that a special envoy would be sent by his government to adjust all matters in dispute. Regarding these assurances as official, the event seemed like a ray of sunlight among the tempestuous clouds. The President issued a proclamation on the 19th of April (1809) permitting a renewal of commercial intercourse with Great Britain from that day; but the British government disavowed Erskine's act, and in August the President, by proclamation, renewed the restrictions. This event produced intense excitement throughout our country; and had the President then proclaimed war against Great Britain, it would undoubtedly have been a popular measure.

In the spring of 1810 (March 23) Bonaparte issued a decree at Rambouillet more destructive in its consequences to American commerce than any measure yet employed. It declared forfeit every American vessel which had entered French ports since March I, or that might thereafter enter; and authorized the sale of the same together with their cargoes, and the proceeds to be placed in the French treasury. Under this decree many American vessels were lost, for which even partial remuneration was not obtained until almost thirty years afterward. It was justified by Bonaparte by the plea a that it was made in retaliation for the American decree of non-intercourse. In May following, Congress offered to resume commercial intercourse with either France or England, or both, on condition that they should repeal their obnoxious "orders" and "decrees" before the 3d of March, 1811. Napoleon, a man expediency and not of principle, feigned compliance. He assured our government that the repeal of the decrees should take effect in November following. On this assurance the President proclaimed a resumption of commercial intercourse with France. The monarch intended to break the solemn promise at any moment when policy should so dictate. American vessels were seized by French cruisers and confiscated as freely as ever. In March, 1811, Napoleon declared the decrees of Berlin and Milan to be a part of the fundamental laws of the empire; and a new envoy sent from France gave official notice to our government, that no remuneration would be allowed for property seized and confiscated.

Great Britain not only continued her hostile orders, but sent ships-of-war to cruise off the principal ports of the United States to intercept American merchant-vessels and send them to England as lawful prizes. In this business the Little Belt, Captain Bingham, a British sloop-of-war, was engaged in the spring of 1811 off the coast of Virginia, where she was met on the 16th of April by the American frigate President, Captain Ludlow, bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Rodgers. The latter hailed the commander of the sloop, asking-"What ship is that?" and received a cannonshot in reply. "Equally determined," said Rodgers in his report, "not to be the aggressor, or suffer the flag of my country to be insulted with impunity, I have a general order to fire." After a very brief action. Captain Bingham, having eleven men killed and twenty-one wounded, gave a satisfactory answer. The vessels parted company, the Little Belt sailing for Halifax.

The conduct of both officers, in this affair, was approved by their respective governments. That of the United States and the People regarded the conduct of Captain Bingham as an outrage without palliation; and the Americans were willing to take up arms in defence of what they regarded as right, justice, and honor. They knew the strength of the British navy and the weakness of their won, yet they were willing to accept war as an alternative for submission, and to measure strength on the ocean. At that time the British navy consisted of almost nine hundred vessels, with an aggregate one hundred and forty-four thousand men. The American vessels-of-war, of large size, numbered only twelve, with about three hundred guns. There was a large number of gun-boats, but these, as we have observed, were scarcely sufficient for a coast-guard. For a navy so weak to defy a navy so strong, seemed like madness. We must remember, however, that the royal navy was much scattered, for that government had interests to protect in various parts of the world. It was the boast of Britons that the sun never set on the dominions of their monarch.

The administration was now sustained by a larger majority of the American people than that of Jefferson had ever been, and the Federalists, or the Opposition, were in a hopeless minority. The continued acts of aggression by the British were increasing the Democratic strength every day; and in 1811, circumstances seemed to make war with Great Britain an imperative necessity for the vindication of the honor, rights, and independence of the United States.

Circumstances had made the Indian tribes on the northwestern frontiers of the United States very uneasy, and the machinations of British traders and government emissaries had stimulated the growth of that discontent into a decided hostile feeling toward the nation of Republicans, then pressing upon the dominion of the savages. The suspension of the world's commerce had diminished the amount of their traffic in furs, and the rapid extension of American settlements northward of the Ohio was narrowing their hunting-grounds and producing a rapid diminution of game. The introduction of intoxicating liquors among them by the white people had spread demoralization widely, with consequent disease and death. These savages were made to believe that all these evils had been brought upon them by the encroachments of the Americans; and in the spring of 1811, it became evident that a league was forming among the tribes for the extermination of the frontier settlers. Tecumtha, a Shawnoese chief, crafty, intrepid, unscrupulous and cruel, and who possessed the qualities of a great leader, endeavored to emulate Pontiac, the great Ottawa chief, in the formation of an Indian confederacy in the Northwest, for making war upon the United States. He had a shrewd twin-brother, called The Prophet, whose mysterious incantations and predictions, and pretended visions and spiritual intercourse, had inspired the savage mind with great veneration for him, as wonderful "medicine-man." He and Tecumtha possessed almost unbounded influence over the Delawares, Shawnoese, Wyandots, Miamis, Kickapoos, Winnebagoes, and Chippewas.

So hostile had the Indians appeared in the spring of 1810, under the influence of these leaders, that General W. H. Harrison, then governor of the Territory of Indiana, invited the brothers to a council at Vincennes, in August. Tecumtha appeared with four hundred full-armed followers. The inhabitants were greatly alarmed by this demonstration of savage military power. Harrison was cool and cautious. The bearing of the chief was bold and haughty. He refused to enter the place wherein the council was to be held, saying: "House were built for your to hold councils in; Indians hold theirs in the open air." He then took a position under some trees in front of the house, and, unabashed by the large concourse of white people before him, he opened the business with a speech marked by great dignity and native eloquence. When he had concluded, one of the governor's aids said to him through an interpreter, as he pointed to a chair: "Your father (General Harrison) requests you to take a seat by his side." The chief drew his blanket around him, and, standing erect, said, with scornful tone: "My father! The sun is my father, and the earth is my mother; on her bosom I will recline;" and then seated himself upon the ground.

The chief had declared it to be his intention to form a confederacy for the purpose of preventing any further cession of lands to the white people, and to recover what had been ceded. "Return those lands," he said, "and Tecumtha will be the friend of the Americans. He likes not the English, who are continually setting the Indians on the Americans." The governor, in reply, told him plainly that the lands had been received from other tribes, and that the Shawnoese, his people, had no business to interfere. Tecumtha sprang to his feet, cast off his blanket, and, with violent gestures, pronounced the governor's words false. He accused the United States of cheating and imposing upon the Indians; and then giving a sign to his warriors near him, they sprang to their feet, seized their war-clubs, and brandished their tomahawks. The governor started from his chair and drew his sword, while the citizens seized any weapon or missile they could find. It was a moment of great peril to the white people. A military guard of twelve men, under some trees a short distance off, were ordered up. A friendly Indian cocked his pistol which he had loaded secretly while Tecumtha was speaking, and would have shot the chief dead. The guard were about to fire, when Harrison, perfectly cool, restrained them, and a bloody encounter was prevented. The interpreter, whom the Indians all respected, told Tecumtha that he was a bad man. The council was broken up. Tecumtha expressed his regret because of the violence into which his anger had betrayed him; but Harrison perceived that war with the followers of the chief and his brother was probable, and took precautions accordingly.

In the spring of 1811 the hostile savages began to roam over the Wabash region, in small parties, plundering the white settlers and friendly Indians. Harrison sent word to Tecumtha and The Prophet that these outrages must cease, and that he was fully prepared to defend the settlers against any number of warriors which they might assemble. Tecumtha, alarmed, went to Vincennes, where he saw seven hundred well-armed militia. He made solemn assurances of friendly feelings and intentions; and then went to the tribes of the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Creeks, in the South, and tried to get them to join him in a league against the white people. Meanwhile Governor Harrison, exercising discretion given him by his government, gathered a large force from Kentucky and elsewhere, at Vincennes, and late in September (1811) marched up the Wabash Valley toward the town of The Prophet near the junction of Tippecanoe Creek and the Wabash River. On the way he built a fort near the present town of Terre Haute, which was called Fort Harrison.

At the beginning of November, the governor and his troops encamped upon a dry oak elevation, that rises about ten feet above a surrounding wet prairie, near the junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash, and there he was visited by The Prophet, who proposed a conference. Harrison suspected treachery, and arranged his camp with care on the afternoon of the 6th of November, to meet any sudden emergency. He ordered that each corps forming the extreme line of the camp should hold its ground, in case of an attack, until relieved. In the event of a night attack, the cavalry were to parade, dismounted, with their pistols in their belts, and act as a reserve corps. Two captains' guards of forty-two men each were detailed to defend the camp. So prepared, the whole camp excepting the sentinels and guards, were soundly sleeping at an early hour. At the same time there had been preparations made by The Prophet for treachery and murder, when the camp of the white people should be filled with sleepers. Surrounded by his dupes, The Prophet brought out his Magic Bowl. In one hand he held a torch, in the other a string of holy beans which his followers were required to touch in token of an oath, and so be made invulnerable in battle. Then he went through a long series of incantations and mystical movements, his solitary eye (for he had lost one) rolling wildly. These ended, he turned to his seven hundred warriors, told them that the time for attacking the white man had come, and holding up the string of beans reminded them of their oath which the touch of them implied. "The white men are in your power," he said. "They sleep now, and will never wake. The Great Spirit will give light to us, and darkness to the white men. Their bullets shall not harm us; your weapons shall be always fatal." Then followed war-songs and dances, until the savages, wrought up to a perfect frenzy, rushed out to attack Harrison's camp.

At four o'clock in the morning of the 7th, Harrison was just pulling on his boots, when a single gun was fired by a sentinel. This was followed by horrid yells. The whole camp was soon aroused, to receive a murderous fire from the savages, who had crept up stealthily to the verge of the camp before they were discovered. A very sharp battle ensued, which lasted until daylight, when the Indians were driven away at the point of the bayonet and pursued into the wet prairie. In that battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison lost, in killed and wounded, one hundred and eighty-eight men.

Tecumtha, who was really a great man, while his brother was a demagogue and a cheat, was absent in the South, at that time. On his return, he found all his plans frustrated by the folly of The Prophet. Vexed and mortified, he was compelled to abandon his schemes for a confederacy, but became a firm and active friend of the British in the war that speedily ensued. His brother, The Prophet, lost caste with his people. Upon a gentle hill toward the Wabash, this demagogue stood on that dark and gloomy November morning, at a safe distance from danger, singing a war song and performing some protracted religious mummeries. When he was told that his followers were falling before the bullets of the white men, he said, "Fight on; it will soon be as I told you." When at last the warriors of many tribes--Shawnoese, Wyandots, Kickapoos, Ottawas, Chippewas, Pottawatomies, Winnebagoes, Sacs, and a few Miamis--fugitives from the battle-field, lost their faith and covered The Prophet with reproaches, he cunningly devised a lying excuse for his failure. He told them that his predictions had failed of fulfillment because, during his incantations, his wife touched the sacred vessels and broke the charm ! His followers, though superstitious in the extreme, would not accept this explanation as an excuse, and they deserted him in such large numbers, that he was compelled to take refuge with a small band of Wyandots, his town having been set on fire. The foe scattered in all directions, and hid themselves where the white man could not easily follow. A poet of the time wrote:

"Sound, sound the charge ! spur, spur the steed, And swift the fugitives pursue ! 'Tis vain; rein in--your utmost speed Could not o'ertake the recreant crew. In lowland marsh, in dell or cave, Each Indian sought his life to save; Whence, peering forth, with fear and ire, He saw his Prophet's town on fire."

These events, so evidently the work of British interference, aroused the spirit of the nation, and out of New England there was a general desire for war with Great Britain. The administration, impressed with the great responsibility of such a measure, and having the entire body of the New England people in opposition, hesitated.

Return to Our Country, Vol II